Ham Lake couple on a mission to protect police dogs

About three years ago, Darrin Thomas of Ham Lake was watching the Animal Planet television show “K-9 Cops” when his wife asked why the dogs did not have bullet proof vests.

Buddy, an almost three-year-old Belgian Malinois, received a vest that can protect him from 9 mm to .40-caliber handgun fire. Photo by Eric Hagen
Buddy, an almost three-year-old Belgian Malinois, received a vest that can protect him from 9 mm to .40-caliber handgun fire. Photo by Eric Hagen

Darrin, a former volunteer firefighter for about 20 years in northern Wisconsin, has some friends in law enforcement and those he talked to said most police departments do not budget for K-9 vests, but would accept donations to purchase them.

Brenda Thomas’ question motivated her husband to start a movement to provide protective vests to as many police K-9s as possible. This past fall, P.A.W.S. for K-9’s officially became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. To date, it has provided one vest each to the Coon Rapids Police Department and Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office. Darrin and Brenda are seeking donations for others, including the four police departments on the waiting list.

Darrin and Brenda Thomas own a seven-year-old yellow Labrador named Toby, so they understand how important man’s best friend is.

“Officers are with that dog 24/7,” Darrin said. “It’s not only a partner. It’s part of the family.”

Anoka Police Department K-9 handler George Walker said his two-and-a-half-year-old German shepherd named Barrett comes home with him and is with him at work, so he is around Barrett more than his wife and three kids. It’s common for the patrol dog to stay with his or her handler.

Besides the financial investment the Anoka Police Department makes when it trains and keeps a K-9 officer on the roster, Walker said there is an emotional investment because Barrett is his partner. Barrett would usually be the first one to go into dangerous situations because of his ability to find hiding suspects with his superior nose, eyes and ears.

Therefore, Walker signed up for the P.A.W.S. for K-9’s waiting list for vests, and he volunteers for the organization by bringing Barrett to demonstrations.

“I’d rather have one and never have to put it on my dog than not have it,” Walker said.

Coon Rapids K-9 handler Mark McDonough feels the same way as Walker. His almost three-year-old Belgian Malinois named Buddy received a vest from P.A.W.S. for K-9’s at the Ham Lake Snowbowl in early February thanks to a $670 donation from the Ham Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.

Buddy has only worn the five-pound vest four to five times for training, but never for a real emergency. McDonough knocked on a table and said he hopes Buddy never has to wear it in a dangerous situation because that means he would also be in danger.

Darrin is a warehouse driver for Harcros Chemicals in St. Paul, but he has always been interested in a law enforcement career and would be interested in working with canines because of his love of dogs. Knowing he is able to help these dogs and their handlers means a lot to him and the people he’s helped.

“What a noble thing to get people from the community involved,” McDonough said. “It’s very rare that we get that kind of financial assistance, which is always what we’re looking for all the time, especially for the K-9 program because they’re so important to us.”

Going into danger

McDonough is approaching his 30-year anniversary of being a police officer in Anoka County. Before coming to the Coon Rapids Police Department in 1990, he worked for the Anoka Police Department. McDonough has been a handler for four patrol dogs in Coon Rapids since 1993.

These dogs have saved McDonough’s life many times and none have been lost in the line of duty. McDonough was emotionally impacted, however, when a seven-year-old Belgian Malinois named Rocky he helped train was killed on Dec. 30, 2009 by a 70-year-old Ham Lake man.

Authorities were in a stand-off with the man because deputies heard gunfire coming from the direction of the Ham Lake man’s home. The police tried to get the man to surrender and shot tear gas through the windows and siding of the home, but he would not come out.

Rocky led the sheriff’s office SWAT team into this man’s home around midnight and he was shot. The Ham Lake man was fatally wounded by a SWAT team member who saw this man start to raise his rifle, according to interviews conducted by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. No charges were filed by the Anoka County Attorney’s Office against the police officer because he and his team were in danger.

McDonough said Rocky would not have been saved by the vest Buddy now has because it could not have stopped the rifle round that hit Rocky.

According to the Elite K-9 manufacturing company, what it sells are certified Level II ballistic vests that can stop anything from a 9 mm to .40-caliber handgun.

Walker knows there are K-9 vests on the market that cost much more and could stop more high-powered ammunition, but he said the vests Elite K-9 sells is probably what nine out of 10 departments would buy if this was budgeted for. He would be very comfortable with Barrett having this vest.

Adjusting to the vest

The Blaine Police Department has two K-9 officers, although one is new to the department and still being trained. Neither have a bullet proof vest, according to Blaine Police Capt. Kerry Fenner. He is sure this is a budgetary issue.

From what he has heard, police dogs normally only have their vest on when the handler knows they are going into a dangerous situation because the vest can restrict movement and perhaps cause the dog to overheat.

The vest does restrict the movement of Buddy, mostly for jumping, McDonough said. It does have straps on the back that he could grab onto if he needs to help Buddy get over a wall for instance.

The waiting list

There is currently a waiting list for five vests. This includes one for the Anoka Police Department, one for the Brooklyn Park Police Department, one for the Houston County Sheriff’s Office and two for the Plymouth Police Department.

The seven-member board of directors includes Darrin, company president and founder; his wife Brenda Thomas, vice president; family friends; and the owners of the Canine Crossings pet supply store in Ham Lake.

For more information, contact Darrin Thomas at [email protected] or call 651-331-8027.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]