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By Devin Rose
In a few days, the newest officer on the Oak Park Police Department will head to Michigan to begin five weeks of training that will prepare him to start his job strong come April.
He's a lot younger and smaller than the rest of the department's staff, but that won't stop him from learning how to seek out drugs from the cars and homes of suspected offenders, or how to stay on the trail of a missing person.
The "officer" is 10-month-old Trooper, a 50-pound Belgian Malinois from Austria. He's the first police dog the department has had in about 15 years.
"He's getting used to city life," said K9 Officer Nat Leitl, who has spent the last week getting to know his new housemate and partner. He's a little timid, Leitl said, as the dog scurried around one room in the police department this week, sniffing all the objects and people inside. But he's so full of energy that the two have been walking five to six miles everyday.
"I can't wait to go to training with him because it'll give him something to do," Leitl said.
The majority of the work Trooper will do involves his nose. In training, he'll learn how to detect drugs—cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine and ecstasy—and will eventually perform that task for the West Suburban Directed Gang Enforcement, or WEDGE. He will also be used to track missing people and offenders that police are pursuing, like suspected armed robbers that flee on foot.
Deputy Chief Anthony Ambrose said WEDGE has been using dogs from Berwyn and Forest Park in other drug cases, "so we figured that having our own dog would certainly help." Trooper will also be able to assist an officer the department has assigned to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Ambrose said. Next week, the department will get a specialized vehicle for Trooper with a cage in the backseat and an alarm that goes off if the car gets too hot.
The training will be a lot of obedience work, which will help Leitl and Trooper build trust with each other. Trooper will be taught to protect Leitl, and he won't be afraid to bite if given the command. It's also important to socialize him, Leitl said, so that he bites who Leitl wants and not who he wants. To the dog, the biting will be just like playtime.
Since he's had a couple months of pre-training mostly in scent imprinting, Trooper is a little ahead of the game. He's smart, Leitl said, and that runs in the family. Trooper's dad is part of a sport ring in Europe, and his mom is in Somalia sniffing out bombs for a private contractor.
At Leitl's Oak Park home, Trooper stays in his crate at night or when Leitl is away. He gets a lot of praise when he does something right, or Leitl will toss him a red rubber toy called a kong. He's not allowed other toys or treats, but he loves to play with Leitl's fiancée's Yorkiepoo. During his week with Leitl, Trooper has made a few trips to the police station. He also recently visited the Green Line el platform to get used to the people and trains.
If Trooper stays healthy, he'll be able to work for the department up to 10 years. But for now, before the serious work, Leitl said he's still curiously chewing some things around the house.
"He's going through the puppy phase," Leitl said.
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