WEEKI WACHEE — When criminals flee from law enforcement, they don’t always simply run, drive or ride away.
Despite the threat of alligators, poisonous water snakes and other potentially hazardous obstacles, bad guys in Florida often take to the water to avoid detection.
For that reason, K-9 officers from law enforcement agencies around the Tampa Bay area took to the cold, clear water at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park this week for an annual training event.
“We’re just working on getting them used to the water,” said Hernando County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Dep. Brandon Cox, who was knee-deep in water with his dog, a 2 1⁄2-year-old German Shepherd named Judge Topper.
Cox has been teamed with Judge Topper for about a year. Born in The Netherlands, the 65-pound dog cost about $8,500.
Not only does Judge Topper accompany Cox on every work call, he lives with Cox and his family, including two young children.
“All (K-9 units) live with their handlers,” Cox said.
When the sheriff’s office received Judge Topper, he was essentially untrained, although, as Cox put it, “He knew how to bite a sleeve.”
“We do all of the obedience and tracking and apprehension work,” Cox said.
That includes training specific to patrol duty and narcotics work.
As when training human officers, the dogs are put through “crazy situations,” said Cox, who has been with the agency about 10 years.
“That way, when they get into real-life situations in the field, they’re not scared or apprehensive,” he said.
Tuesday evening’s event also included officers from the Brooksville Police Department, Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Highway Patrol, Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Pinellas Park Police Department, Tarpon Springs Police Department and Zephyrhills Police Department.
Brooksville Police K-9 Officer Phil Martin smiled as his dog, Titan, splashed in the water. They have been together for a couple of years.
“This is a good overall experience for the dogs, so (getting in the water) isn’t new to them,” said Martin, who added that the duration of a K-9 unit’s career varies by animal.
“Typically it’s eight 1⁄2 or nine years, but it depends on a lot of things, such as their health” and how hard they are worked, Martin said.
While there were other breeds at Tuesday’s event, most dogs were German Shepherds.
“They’re just a well-rounded dog,” Martin said. “They have the ability to do everything an agency requires.”