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They are a new breed of cop with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men.

And in the past eight months the Niagara Falls and Lockport police departments have brought a total of three of them on board to fight crime and to protect their police officers.

They are dogs. Police dogs. A new generation of smart German shepherds that are screened for intelligence, good temperament and aptitude, then specially trained to hear, smell and detect people and things (such as drugs) that are beyond any human officer's capabilities.

The police officers who work with them say the dogs are everything the departments hoped they would be -- and then some.

Last winter, for example, Falls police officials purchased and trained Shanko, a young shepherd who has been so successful and so much in demand that the department just purchased another dog named Draco.

Shanko has been paying off ever since July 3 when he and his handler, Officer Shawn Larrabee, first hit the streets.

His first night on the job, Shanko was called out to the Niagara Falls Boulevard-100th Street area, where he tracked down two people who had been trying to break into a vehicle. The pair had disappeared from sight, but Shanko tracked them through area neighborhoods and found them hiding under some bushes, according to police reports.

He did the same later that month when a man burglarized numerous homes in the LaSalle area one night. Shanko tracked the suspect hither and yon for 45 minutes and finally flushed him out from a side yard, Larrabee said.

In late July, Shanko entered a building in the Memorial Parkway area and found three men hiding in a basement, all wanted on felony warrants. The men had a shotgun, but Shanko held them at bay,
warned officers of their presence and enabled his human counterparts to arrest the three without a hitch, Larrabee said.

More recently, during a drug raid, Shanko located 9 ounces of cocaine hidden inside the mechanism of a full-sized video arcade game in the basement of a North End home, Larrabee said.

"If it hadn't been for Shanko, we might never have found it," Larrabee said.

As of Sept. 25, Shanko had responded to 260 police calls, 125 of them specifically demanding his special talents, Larrabee said. "He's had 125 actual K-9 calls and 135 normal patrol calls," Larrabee said.

"Shanko's been doing so much work that we got another dog (Draco) so he won't burn out."

Shanko's name has sometimes appeared on reports generated by officers from all three shifts -- all on the same day.

"It goes in streaks," Larrabee said of Shanko's schedule. He said Shanko might remain on his late night-early morning schedule for three weeks and then may be asked to assist other shifts several times in a week.

So far, Larrabee said he has been able to fill all the requests.

But unlike pet dogs, who spend a lot of time resting, Shanko has been getting more than his share of work.

The solution to that demand is Draco, another intelligent shepherd who currently is undergoing a 13-week training course at the Niagara Regional Police Canine Training Center in Virgil, Ont., along with his handler, Officer Stephen Reed, and is expected to go on active duty by Dec. 18.

"The number of (K-9) calls far exceeded what they (police administrators) expected," Reed said. "If we didn't get another dog, they were afraid Shanko would burn out."

Lockport police have also purchased a new shepherd named Blesk who has been performing similar duties since March.

Blesk replaces Arko, who left the force after his handler, Officer Douglas Wallace, was injured on the job and had to take disability retirement.

Why are these dogs such an asset to police departments?

Lockport Officer Steve Ritchie, Blesk's handler, said, "He's a necessity. He protects officers, especially on burglary calls where a building search is needed. Another big thing is drug detection. They hide drugs in better spots that are more difficult to detect all the time. You could search all day and never find them. But dogs can."

Ritchie said Blesk can go in and search a building alone, preventing a hidden suspect from injuring or evading a human police officer.

"He can smell them. He'll find them even if they are hiding up high," Ritchie said, thanks to dogs' "heightened senses and natural instincts."

"Dogs can even smell that there were drugs there" even after the drugs have been removed, Ritchie said.

The new shepherds do not fit the old stereotype of the snarling police dog.

"He's got a good temperament," Ritchie said of Blesk. "He's friendly. He'll lick you and everything. But If you pose a danger, he'll be on guard."

Larrabee said Shanko also is fun to be with and is just like a pet in many ways, but also knows when it's time to work.

These new police dogs are good for crowd control and can run down a suspect if they have to. They even know when to use reasonable force, Larrabee and Ritchie said.

"He'll only bite once if it's necessary. He'll protect himself," Ritchie said.

Larrabee said Shanko enjoys his job and could work efficiently for up to eight years if he isn't overworked.

"They have fun. It's a game to them," Larrabee said of the dogs.

"They are very competitive and the whole thing (finding people and detecting drugs) is all fun for them. They are wagging their tails all the time and enjoying it."

He said the addition of Draco to the force will spread out the duty a bit so neither dog will become overworked and lose his enthusiasm for the job.

Larrabee also said the dogs are great public relations tools for police departments and make a big hit when they appear at local schools or demonstrate their abilities for adults.

But these dogs are not used to replace humans. They just supplement in an inexpensive way, Larrabee said.

He said Shanko will probably cost the police department about $30,000 over his career, including the cost of setting up a police car to accommodate him. He said Petsmart, 6560 Niagara Falls Blvd., donates all Shanko's food.

Larrabee said his department is still looking for donations to help finance the K-9 program, including the money to outfit another car and obtain equipment for Draco. The dogs themselves cost $3,600.

Other county departments also use dogs. North Tonawanda police use a bloodhound named Abbey with her handler, Officer Kevin Phillips. The State Police have a bomb dog, a shepherd named Jake, handled by Trooper Andrew Szolnoky. And the Niagara County Sheriff's Department uses a bloodhound and several Labrador retrievers handled by civilians who have been designated special deputies, said Special Deputy William Tolhurst, who runs the program.

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