Officer Matt Wilson and K9 Stryker of the Alexandria Police Department have been a team for about two years.
For Wilson, Stryker is a constant companion.
“To many of us they’re more than just pets,” Wilson said. “They become like your child, essentially. You don’t want to see any harm come to them.”That’s why Wilson said he’s able to breathe a little easier knowing Stryker has a ballistic and stab protective vest to wear in dangerous situations.
Wilson said the K9 unit is often used when searching for evidence, chasing down suspects and in barricade situations, among other things.
“You know, where a guy pulls a gun and starts shooting, where officers are going to duck for cover, our dogs aren’t going to duck for cover,” Wilson explained. “Our dogs are going to run right towards them.”
Sometimes K9s are anywhere from 10 to 25 feet in front of their handler and are exposed to dangerous subjects first. Dr. David Ferland, the executive director of the United States Police Canine Association, said that’s by design.
“It provides the handler a reactionary time to be able to do something defensively,” Ferland explained. “But oftentimes, because the dog is so far in front of the handler, they are meeting the threat, sometimes unaware to the handler.”
So far, Ferland said 19 K9s have died this year. Five of those deaths were through shootings and two were through stabbings. Ferland noted that out of approximately 10,000 police dogs in the U.S., about 20 to 25 die each year.
But vests like the one Stryker wears in dangerous situations are meant to give K9s a chance if they are injured.
Stryker received his vest about a year ago thanks to donations from the Alexandria Police Foundation and the nonprofit organization Vested Interest in K9s.
Those vests, however, can cost anywhere from around $2,500 to $3,500 depending on their ballistic value, according to Ferland. In fact, he said K9 vests cost approximately twice as much as vests for human officers.
And oftentimes, Ferland said it’s that price point that prevents many K9 units from purchasing the vests.
“Many of the police dog units that are in America now are grossly underfunded,” Ferland explained. “And oftentimes, it is those ballistic vests that are on the chopping block and many units still don’t have those vests.”
He added that community donations for ballistic and stab protective vests often don’t pour in until after tragedy strikes.
“It would be nice if we are going to try to outfit all of these K9s with bulletproof vests, that we have the initiative before the tragedy occurs,” he said.
It’s nonprofits like Vested Interest in K9s, the Atlantic K9 Vest Fund and Project Paws Alive, among others, that raise and donate the funding for these vests.
Wilson and Ferland both explained that the K9s can’t wear the vests during day-to-day activities because they are too cumbersome. Instead, they are only worn in certain situations.
Ferland added that there have been times when K9s have died despite being outfitted with a vest because the handler just didn’t have time to put it on.
“They just didn’t have time to deploy the dog with the vest because police work happens so quickly,” he explained.
Read more stories from Alix Hines on Circa.