Monday, 10 December 2018
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K9s from a QB: Findlay among departments to get police dogs from Ben Roethlisberger


FINDLAY — At 6 foot, 1, 215 pounds, JuJu Smith-Schuster is not an easy guy to bring down. So how did a tackler less than half his size flatten the Pittsburgh Steelers receiver at a charity softball game in Findlay last summer?

Because Shadow is an athlete, too, and he works for nothing but dog food, playtime, and a lot of attention as a K9 for the Findlay Police Department.

“These dogs are bred to have a crazy drive to play and work,” said Findlay Police K9 Officer Jacob Atkins, whose partner is Deke, a 76-pound German shepherd-Belgian Malinois mix.

“It’s all play for them.”

Shadow and Deke were not funded by the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation. But 11 years ago, Findlay received the first of 130 police dogs Mr. Roethlisberger has purchased and paid to train for departments from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, Cleveland to Baltimore, and many other communities not in the AFC North Division. The foundation, which is managed by The Giving Back Fund, has donated $1.9 million for dogs, training, and police equipment.

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Mr. Roethlisberger has spoken with K9 officers who have benefited from his foundation’s grants.

“Some of them say they’d rather have a canine partner than a human one,” he said. “They can count on their dog no matter what.”

He credits his love of dogs to his father, Ken, who took him and the family dogs to hunt quail, pheasants, and ducks in Western Ohio when he was growing up. Today, Mr. Roethlisberger’s family has a Vizsla and German shepherd and Ken and Brenda Roethlisberger dote on a golden retriever and coonhound. Ken said a pro football career and Mr. Roethlisberger’s three children leaves little time for hunting, but he has 150 acres in western Pennsylvania just in case. And when either family is out of town, the other watches their dogs.

The former Miami University quarterback was looking for a cause in 2007 when he learned that Flip, a police dog in his hometown, had been shot and killed when he got out of the yard of his handler, K9 Officer Bryon Deeter. He spent $8,900 to purchase and train Spike as Deeter’s new partner. His father encouraged him to make police dogs his mission.

“My dad said, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool? We’re a dog family,’” he said.

Spike retired in 2013 and died in 2016. Officer Deeter, a 23-year veteran on the Findlay force, is no longer a K9 officer, but he still treasures the bond between him and his canine partners.

“He’s your protector, you’re the alpha. You’re spending more of your time with your dog than your family,” he said.

To thank Mr. Roethlisberger for his generosity, Officer Deeter made a 7-minute video featuring Flip, Spike, and their benefactor in action. The song on the soundtrack is “Friend Ben,” a lyrical riff on Ted Nugent’s “Fred Bear.”

“For me, it’s very rewarding to see this foundation go on,” Officer Deeter said. “It means my loss wasn’t in vain.”

K9 officers say that play is the basis of a police dog’s training. Endless games of tug of war taught Shadow to go after the bite cuff on Smith-Schuster’s arm at the benefit softball game for the Roethlisberger foundation in June. On the video, you can hear the quarterback telling his receiver to slip off the cuff before the dog’s powerful jaws can do damage.

A police dog has to be willing to bite, subdue a suspect and “retrieve until he passes out,” said Beaver Township K9 Officer Chris Albert. “They have a very high drive. You don’t want them as pets.”

Officer Albert, who is also a certified K9 trainer, got his latest partner, Argo, through a grant from the Roethlisberger foundation. The German shepherd came from the Czech Republic and responds only to commands in that language.

“You don’t teach the dogs English,” he explained. “You may want the suspect to lay down. You don’t want the dog to do it.”

After many hours of training and time together on and off the job, man and dog become a team. “Everything you’re feeling is going down the leash to that dog. If you’re nervous or happy, he knows that,” Officer Albert said.

Dogs have personalities just like people, and prefer some tasks over others, said Brian Woods of Fremont, a master trainer who has trained five police dogs funded by the Roethlisberger foundation, including Spike, the first one.

“Some dogs love tracking. They’re tracking fools. They may not like apprehension as much,” he said.

The key is finding what a dog does best — and letting him do it. “He does it because he wants to, not because you’re making him,” Mr. Woods said.

During training, he also teaches K9 officers how to correct their dogs. One or two sharp tugs on a small-link metal chain or pinch collar simulates a mother’s bite on the back of a puppy’s neck, he said.

It may sound harsh, but it illustrates the difference of having a dog as a partner rather than a pet. That comes later after the dog retires; K9 officers almost always keep their retired dogs.

When he worked as a K9 officer in Fremont, Mr. Woods said his dog Quarz tore a ligament and couldn’t work for two months.

“He would drag himself and block the back door, like ‘You’re not going anywhere without me.’”

And when the dog had to finally quit the game, Mr. Woods would put on his uniform at the station so his old partner wouldn’t see him going to work without him.

“He wants to but physically he knows he can’t. He would start crying, and then we were both crying.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Kevin Kirkland is a writer for the Post-Gazette.

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