By S. Colby Smith | Photography by Kelvin Andow
Sometimes it happens like a made-for-TV love story. People and their dogs come together in strange and unpredictable ways. The stories of their lives before one another fade into irrelevance once the stars align and their cosmic journeys unite.
So it was with K-9 Nos. 2016, 2017 and their handler, James Kenison.
Officer in transition
Kenison, a former military contractor and Arizona-based K-9 handler, had been with the Rochester Police Department for about
5 years when Razor, a German Shepherd-Belgian Malinois K-9 he was working with started suffering from seizures and had to be medically retired.
A family in Duluth adopted Razor and cared for him until the seizures became too burdensome for the handsome, hardworking dog. They decided to euthanize him.
“It kills me,” Kenison said of Razor’s death. “But they had to make that difficult decision. It’s never easy.”
The police officer, meanwhile, was casting about the Rochester Police Department in search of a new purpose and mission. He remained a steadfast peacekeeper, devoted to the City and people of Rochester, but the majority of his 15-year policing career had been spent working with dogs, and he missed that bond and interaction.
A Dog’s decision
Just across the hall, in the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Department, Deputy Chris Wallace was about to receive a promotion to captain. The career move for the deputy left his K-9, Rocco, without a handler and no particular place in the Sheriff’s Department.
And here’s where that strange convergence of person and pup comes in: The sheriff’s department couldn’t use Rocco and so decided to donate the dog to Rochester Police. The search for a handler began.
“[Rocco] came over almost asking, ‘Okay, who’s going to be my handler?’” Kension said. “It’s basically putting the right handler with the right dog—you let the dog take the lead in that decision.”
Rocco is Razor’s brother, the littermates having come from the same breeder several years earlier. They both loved to work. They both exceeded officer expectations in job performance and intelligence.
The Rochester Police Department, seeing the similarities between Rocco and Razor, decided to try Kenison with Rocco, and the pair hit the ground running.
They spent countless hours training together, playing, getting to know each other.
“He’s just a solid dog,” Kenison says proudly. “He just wants to work.”
Their hard work paid off quickly.
Rocco completed narcotics certification from the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) after less than one month with his handler, a remarkable achievement and a testament to the dog’s intelligence and hardworking determination.
Rocco is part German Shepherd and part Belgian Malinois, both fiercely loyal and highly trainable breeds. Singular focus and drive for reward is typical of both breeds but shines through with particular radiance from Rocco’s Malinois heritage. The farm dog ranks among the American Kennel Club’s hardest working and most energetic breeds.
“Intelligent and trainable, the Belgian Malinois possesses a strong desire to work and is happiest with regular activity and a job to do,” according to the American Kennel Club (AKC).
The Rochester Police K-9 Unit is a joint unit with the Olmsted County Sheriff K-9 Unit. They are under the supervision of Rochester Police Sgt. Mike Drees and Olmsted County Sheriff Deputy Chief Brian Howard, respectively. The Rochester Police K-9 Unit has an authorized operating strength of six K-9 teams and provides 24/7 coverage to the City of Rochester.
The K-9 units work closely with the Patrol Division, Emergency Response Unit (also known as SWAT), Street Crimes Unit, Narcotics Unit and School Liaison Unit in locating evidence and suspects.
Among the dogs’ most valued—and personally risky—attributes is their willingness to venture into intensely unsafe situations to increase officer safety in high-risk situations.
For instance, handlers have been known to strap cameras to K-9 vests or collars and release the dogs into hostage or bomb situations in order to give officers a closer look at dangerous situations from a safe distance.
K-9s can track and locate dangerous suspects in situations and areas where officers entering would have to place their lives and safety at risk. Every year they remove hundreds of thousands of dollars of controlled substances from the street.
Train, protect, relax, repeat
Between the Sheriff’s Department and Rochester Police, there are 10 canine teams. The dogs are primarily German Shepherds with some being a cross with a Belgian Malinois. The dogs and their handlers go through a rigorous training program that prepares them for police work.
Early training starts with obedience, article searches, tracking, agility and criminal apprehension. Later, more advanced training covers narcotics or explosives detection, depending on the department’s needs.
Public education is also important for the K-9 Unit, and officers conduct public demonstrations frequently throughout the year.
But it’s not all hard work all the time.
At quitting time, Rocco is just a family dog to the Kenison family. Officers working high-stress jobs need a stable and relaxing home life. Why would things be any different for a dog?
“Sometimes we have to take off the uniform and relax, and we try to do that for the dogs, too,” Kenison said. “We try to give them a normal dog life.”
Rocco, like all dogs in the K-9 Unit, lives with his handler. He lounges around the house. Plays with the kids in the back yard. Loves to fetch.
“At home, he’s just a regular dog,” Kenison says. “When I have buddies over for a party, he’s right there playing along.”
Razor may be gone, but Rocco carries on the family legacy. He’s hardworking, loyal, loving and fun.
S. Colby Smith lives in Rochester with his wife, three children, two cats and two dogs.
TO SUPPORT THE K-9s
The Olmsted-Rochester Law Enforcement K-9 Foundation is a nonprofit that supports the K-9 units for both the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office and Rochester Police Department.
It identifies and prioritizes needs that are not funded through ordinary budgets. Items like bulletproof and stab-proof vests are common purchases for the foundation.
Learn more about the foundation, meet the dogs, and donate at www.olmstedrochesterk9.org.
Facebook: Visit the foundation at www.facebook.com/olmstedrochesterk9
Visit the Rochester Police K-9 Unit at www.facebook.comRochesterMNPoliceK9