Community, Springfield

K9s compete for top dog honors

SPRINGFIELD — Like any other dog, Flex, Gryff, and Kirby drool as they stare at their favorite Kong toys, awaiting the anticipated moment in which it gets tossed across the field. 

In many ways, these German shepherds are the typical fun-loving, carefree sidekicks, but when they’re on the clock, they’re far from your average canine companions. 

The SPD held its annual K9 Competition on Saturday at Springfield High School’s Silke Field, showcasing the agility and takedown skills of its K9 coworkers.

It is a time for the dogs and their handlers to show the community the hard work they’ve put into training these dogs, while also showing how beneficial K9s can be for police departments.

Thirteen teams of K9s and their handlers from around the region took part in varying events in the competition that has been going strong since 1996 — excluding a two-year halt during the pandemic. 

One of those officers is Conner O’Leary, who has worked for the SPD for almost seven years, and has worked with the canine unit for three. He’s Kirby’s handler, a five-year-old German shepherd who placed third in last weekend’s competition. 

“We want to show people the true nature of K9s and what they can do for this community,” he said. 

The “true nature” of these dogs was put on full display at the event, with the “top dogs” earning slots in first, second, and third place — all from SPD. 

Coming in first overall was Flex, a 10-year-old German shepherd, whose handler is Officer Andrew Hargis. Flex took home first place as “the oldest dog in the competition.” This is Flex’s fourth and final time placing first since 2015, as he will be retiring later this year, said Zak Gosa-Lewis, public information coordinator for the SPD.

Flex won by “mere fractions” during a tie-breaker event against K9 Gryff and Officer Julio Garcia-Cash. This was the first time the event saw a tie for first place since the competition’s inception.

This year, Silke Field’s bleachers were “completely full,” Gosa-Lewis said. For the future, the SPD is focused on how to accommodate the growing audience and attention for this event in years to come.

“It’s an awesome problem to have,” he said. 

The SPD department boasts five K9s — four German shepherds and one yellow lab, and is lauded around the state for development of a program before it was considered common practice.

According to the SPD, in 1976, Federal Grant money was available to law enforcement agencies in Oregon for burglary prevention or detection. 

The Coos Bay Police Department started a K9 program with this money, and Sergeant Alan Carlson observed their work. He initiated a study and proposal for the SPD. After five years of submitting the proposal to the city council, it was finally reviewed and the K9 program was formed.

Some pups, like Kirby, are raised in the Czech Republic, and are bought from a kennel in Riverside, Calif., where discerning SPD officers fly down to scope out the picks of the litter. 

Czech is Kirby’s first language, O’Leary said, and responds to a mixture of English and Czech commands. 

“When Kirby joined our department, he had to learn some English and officer O’Leary had to learn some Czech,” said Gosa-Lewis. 

K9s typically only respond to their handler’s voice, and Kirby watches attentively to O’Leary when he speaks. “If you went ahead and attacked me, you’d see a totally different dog, he’d flip a switch,” O’Leary said.

“Some people may not understand that, while this big dog can be visually scary, that he is the furthest thing from it when he’s not working,” Gosa-Lewis said. 

When they aren’t on the clock, “they are goofballs – they are chasing the ball like any other dog, they are taking food off the counter… They’re still dogs, just dogs with jobs,” he said.

In talking about “flipping a switch,” when off the crime beat, these dogs also frequent community events, like their recent trip visiting Guy Lee Elementary School students for K9 demos. 

“This past year, every single one of our dogs has attended multiple community events and acted as a representative of the department,” Gosa-Lewis said. 

While Kirby is technically owned by the City of Springfield, he spends nearly all his time with O’Leary. “He’s my family dog. I spend every day with him,” he said.

When the officers get paired with dogs, they spend one month focusing on quality time and bonding. “I’m doing like 15 walks a day, and every one of (Kirby’s) meals gets eaten out of my jacket. My wife hates it,” he said. 

The dogs are trained for four-10 weeks until they are fit to be deployed, where they are used to take down suspects during burglaries, shootings, or stolen cars. The dogs are trained to clear buildings and look for potential suspects when it’s dark out and a burglary has occurred, in order to ensure the safety of the officers on duty.

“Officer safety is always at the forefront for us,” said Gosa-Lewis.

Kirby is also used in non-violent situations. He’s been deployed to find missing persons or elderly folks who may have Alzheimer’s and are lost. 

When Kirby is ready to retire, O’Leary will purchase him from Springfield for the price of $1 for tax purposes. 

“I have a $1 bill I set aside that I’ve already chosen,” O’Leary said. 

While learning how to handle K9s is the most taxing thing he said he’s learned on the force, for O’Leary, thousands of hours spent bonding and training with Kirby has made it all worth it. 

“It’s hands down the best job I’ve ever had,” O’Leary said.

Photo gallery below. All photos by Bob Williams.



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