Canines, handlers form a close bond

Brad Nettles/Staff (Left to right) Hanahan police officer Jon Ellwood, K-9 Cpl. Travis Lanphere and Lt. Dennis Turner remove the flag-covered body of “Shadow” from a police vehicle at McAlister-Smith Funeral Home, where the Hanahan police dog was to be cremated. Buy this photo

It didn’t take long for word to spread.

Shadow, the canine partner of Hanahan police officer Travis Lanphere, died suddenly after a training session at the Exchange Park Fairgrounds in Ladson.

Twelve hours later, families, some holding posters, lined Foster Creek Road on Tuesday as a motorcade of about 20 police cars from Hanahan and surrounding areas wound its way through Tanner Plantation on the way to McAlister-Smith Funeral Home in Goose Creek. There, officers paid their tearful last respects to the 7-year-old German shepherd.

During his years on the force, Shadow had more than 25 apprehensions. He obtained the highest level of certification through the National Police Work Dog Association, and was certified in drug detection work, suspect tracking, searches and other areas.

“You can replace him but you can never replace him,” said Hanahan Police Chief Mike Cochran. “We’ll move forward but we won’t forget.”

The relationship between handlers and their canines is a special one. As work partners who spend nearly all their time together, they know each other’s habits. They protect each other.

“Law enforcement is a brotherhood in itself,” Lanphere said. “Canine brotherhood is extremely close. Unless you’ve worked a dog, you don’t understand the bond that we have with them. He was my partner. For the last five years, I’d had him right by me.”

Best buddies


An estimated 15,000 police dogs are in use in the United States, according to the North American Police Work Dog Association.

Many law enforcement departments in the Lowcountry have canine units, also known as K-9 units. Departments that don’t have canine teams often have relationships with ones that do, and borrow the teams when needed.

Many of the departments train together. Lanphere was training with Charleston County’s unit when Shadow died.

“We all know each other,” said Canine Deputy Michael Buenting of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. The departments spend about a day a week keeping the dogs’ skills sharp, and deputies often assist each other on calls.

The bond between the humans and their four-legged partners is also strong, Cochran said.

“It takes a special person to be a canine handler,” he said. “These aren’t just house pets. These things become your best buddy. You can’t leave the house without them.”

For about eight months, Buenting’s companion has been Niko, a 2½-year-old German shepherd. Like many canine teams, they patrol the county in a specially outfitted Chevy Tahoe.

“He is absolutely like a partner,” Buenting said. “I spend more time with him than I do with anybody else. Life revolves around that dog all the time. Everywhere I go, everything I do. If I have him 10 years, I’m going to be with him every day for 10 years.”

At home, Niko spends most of his time in a large kennel. At work, when he’s not in the field or training, he stays in the Tahoe or a building that houses kennels. When Buenting goes on vacation, Niko will stay in the kennel at work.

While the dogs spend lots of time with their handlers, their exposure to other humans is often limited.

“Everybody wants to play with them,” Buenting said. But Niko, trained in apprehension and narcotics, is a working dog, he said.

“He doesn’t go home and hang out in the air conditioning. He stays in the kennel. Nobody can play with him. He does not eat table scraps,” Buenting said. “The purpose of that is so he wants to come to work. When he sees me come out in my uniform to get him, he’s ready. He’s amped up.”

The officers are on call 24 hours a day. Because the dogs work hard and fast, they quickly wear out, so officers often respond to apprehension or narcotics calls in pairs.

“When he gets on a scent, you’re gone,” Buenting said. “He can go from a walk to a full sprint in about three seconds. But when he’s done, he knows it and he’ll stop. Then someone else will come over and pick up where he left off.”

Often, just having a dog on the scene can stop a suspect.

“The dog is a tool, not a weapon,” Buenting said. “It hurts if you get bit, but you are going to heal.”

They also often help with crowd control and do demonstrations.

Part of a team


Police dogs typically retire by the time they are 10 years old.

Charleston County Marine Patrol Officer Kevin Meyer said his 9-year-old shepherd, Nelo, will retire soon.

“He gets up a little slower,” he said. “I can see it because I’m his handler, but you wouldn’t know it.”

Meyer, who is married with two young children, said he will keep the dog.

“It’s good that he’s getting to retire and have a little time to be a dog,” said Meyer, who patrols the waterfront, performing random searches on cruise ships and other vessels. “In his mind, I think he’s always going to be a work dog. I don’t think he’ll understand completely, but I am working on transitioning him to be out of the kennel and in the backyard a little bit more.”

Three months ago, Meyer got Legion, a 20-month-old Labrador he has been training.

The most popular breeds for police dogs are German shepherds, Labradors, Belgian Malinois, Dutch shepherds, and occasionally mixes of these breeds, according to the National Police Dog Foundation.

The dogs, which can cost upward of $10,000, usually arrive highly trained and continue daily training with their handlers. Most of them are taught commands in German, Dutch or Czech.

“The dogs become part of the team,” said sheriff’s Lt. Jon Jacobik, who oversees Charleston County’s canine unit. “Over time, they take on the personality of the handlers. Happy handlers have happy dogs. Grumpy handlers have grumpy dogs.”

Sometimes officers realize that being part of the canine team isn’t for them, he said.

“We encourage them to come ride with us and come to training days before they apply to become handlers,” Jacobik said. “A lot of people don’t realize what a lot of work these guys do with these dogs. Once you start training a dog, it consumes you.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or facebook.com/brindge.

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