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K-9s, handlers descend on Denver

By Blair Yankey - byankey@perutribune.com

Watch out Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.

Cartoush and Blitz may have stolen the spotlight in Miami County this week. The four-legged Olympians are just two of nearly 130 K-9s competing in this year’s K-9 Olympics in Denver – including some from around the globe.

In its 18th year, the popular event is held at the Vohne Liche Kennel grounds for a week of learning and competition in such areas as obedience, obstacles and building search with simulated shots fired, among others.

Bobby Roettger, director of military operations at VLK, said the Olympics started when VLK’s owner and chief canine trainer, Ken Licklider, and a friend formed an organization called the American Working Dogs in Muncie to help to help train dog handlers throughout the Midwest.

“They didn’t want to be clipboard grade-type trainers, but instead use it as an outlet where handlers and their K-9s can learn from their mistakes,” Roettger said.

Roettger said the event draws K-9 units from all around the world, including, this year, Costa Rica, Australia, Belgium, Holland and Costa Rica. Military personnel from the U.S. Marines and Army also made the trip.

Closer to home, Peru’s own Sgt. Samantha Raber and K-9 Fargo, and Jeremy Brindle and K-9 Darro were in attendance as well.

“It’s not just a competition, but there’s also seminars where they can learn different things from different areas, for example, Australia may come in and do a tracking class, Alaska may come in and talk about patrol work, so it’s a lot of camaraderie ... to get everyone here and enhance our career fields,” Roettger said.

Competing for his first year Thursday morning was Indiana State Police Trooper Ben Reason, who brought Cartoush, his Belgian Malinois along the fun.

Cartoush is a dual-purpose dog, meaning he’s trained for either patrol and drug detection or patrol and explosives. On Thursday, he participated in the control event.

“I basically came for training opportunities,” Reason said. “Anytime you can train with the dog, it’s beneficial to the team.”

As a department, Reason said they train twice a month with three master trainers. “That’s pretty important and helps with progression, because you have to work with the (K-9s) quite a bit.”

His colleague, ISP Trooper Kaleb Clarke, also attended the Olympics for his first year with his dog Blitz, a German shepherd. Clarke said the event has been an asset in helping him learn what areas he and Blitz need to focus on.

“Some of the difficulties my dog has had ... there’s so many dogs out here, and he’s interested in all of their odors, along with all the other odors he’s supposed to find,” he said, “So, obedience and control are definitely big.”

Clarke also said he believes the event will better prepare him for next year now that he’s familiar with the setting and atmosphere.

“Of course, they change it up a bit each year, but some of these things I haven’t had much exposure too, so it’s a great learning lesson,” Clarke said. “And more importantly, the more scenarios (Blitz) is trained for, the better he’s going to do out on the road.”

More than 30 judges participated in this year’s Olympics, all of whom have previously worked as K-9 handlers. Luis Rodriguez, a judge at the control station, worked as head trainer of the K-9 Unit with the Department of Corrections in Puerto Rico for nine years.

He said he evaluates based on the dog’s control and obedience.

“We evaluate (the handlers) in different situations of keeping control of their dog ... such as when they’re not supposed to bite and when they are,” he said. “It’s about making sure the dog obeys their handlers commands.”

Currently, he works with VLK as senior trainer law enforcement, and has been a judge at the Olympics for 16 years.

“I enjoy seeing how the competitors progress year after year,” Rodriguez said. “Everytime they come over, they might have some mistakes that they’ll have to fix, and then next year, they’ll fix everything that they couldn’t do the prior year.”

Serving as a judge is a lifestyle, not a job, he said. “We enjoy seeing these guys come out,” he said. “We know they’re working hard in the street, putting their lives in danger every single day, so the least we can do is train them and give them a little bit of advice on how they can get better on the street.”

The event will culminate today with the popular Hard Dog Fast Dog competition at 10 a.m. This event measures the dog and handler’s ability to take down a suspect by following the handler’s commands.

A banquet and awards ceremony is scheduled to take place at 2 p.m. today in a banquet room at the Grissom Air Reserve Base.