Duluth’s new police dog has a nose for crime
Duluth police K9 Officer Marc Johnson said the department’s newest police dog, Oakley, is friendly, smart, athletic and has a nose that fleeing criminals — especially those with drugs — can’t hide from.
“You and I can walk into a room and we know that a pizza is being baked,” Johnson said, and then used a little hyperbole to make his point: “Oakley can walk into the same room and tell you that the pizza is a thin-crust pizza with mushrooms, pepperoni and sausage on it.
“That’s what makes him so effective in detecting drugs, detecting human scent, being able to follow somebody through the woods on a mile-and-a-half track and know whether the suspect went left, right, straight or back to where they came from.”
Oakley, a purebred German shepherd from Czechoslovakia, is a fully trained police dog with the ability to sniff out drugs and suspects. He’s his department’s newest K-9. He was purchased for $13,000, using a donation from Amsoil.
Oakley had another name when Johnson got him. It was assumed that he named the dog after Oakley sunglasses. “No,” Johnson said, “but he’s cool enough to wear them.”
Johnson has worked with the dog for about eight months. He recalled the day they met.
“I remember Oakley just stood and looked at me like, ‘Hmm. Who are you?’ It was intimidating at first. It really was,” Johnson said. “You look at this big hulk of a dog and you know what he’s capable of, and now he’s your responsibility to become ‘Alpha’ over him. That’s quite the duty.”
Johnson bonded with Oakley when the dog learned where his next meal was coming from.
“Once I fed him, that was it; he was putty in my hands,” Johnson said. “He was like, ‘All right. You’re a pretty cool guy. You’re giving me food. I like you.’ ”
The officer said he isn’t embarrassed to admit that he sometimes talks to his partner as if the dog is human. Other times, he sings to him. What does he sing? Johnson laughed and said, “Like the Mickey Mouse song: O-A-K-L-E-Y — Y? Because we do police work.”
Oakley has been involved in several successful operations with the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force. He’s found heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and crack cocaine. So far he hasn’t had to latch onto anyone’s rear end.
The officer and Oakley work 12-hours shifts at night in the summer and 10-hour shifts at night in the winter. They then go home together, where the city built a kennel and a warm dog house.
He doesn’t feed his dog any table scraps and nothing fancy for food. “We keep his rewards basically limited to keep his drive up,” Johnson said. “God forbid we give him steak and all of a sudden he won’t work for anything but steak. That could become expensive, and I don’t think the city would appreciate that bill coming in every month.”
Police dogs are usually male and range in size from 60 to 100 pounds. Oakley is average size at 75 pounds, but Johnson said that’s the only thing average about his partner. The dog’s special attributes?
“His drive; his playfulness; his good, lean, athletic build which allow him to do things like hurdles — and he’s so intelligent,” Johnson said. “He’s one of the more intelligent dogs that I’ve seen. You can look in his eyes and see the wheels turning. You can see him thinking through things. Whereas, if I look at my (pet) dog’s eyes I just see: ‘When are we eating next? When is dinner?’
“You look into Oakley’s eyes and see a different kind of gaze. … He’s like, ‘OK, Dad, what are we going to do? When are we going to do it?’
“My Lab wouldn’t care if a burglar came into my house and I was fighting with him. He might just go to his food dish and eat. Oakley would help me out. He’d know the burglar was coming probably a half-hour before he even showed up. He’d be pacing or doing something. He’s so perceptive. It’s been absolutely astonishing learning how perceptive a dog can be.”
Oakley is sometimes used as a deterrent and to ratchet down heated street disputes.
“There’s been a couple of instances where large groups of people, maybe 15 to 20 are in a brawl, and we’ll bring a dog out or two, and all of a sudden people stop fighting immediately,” Johnson said.
Sgt. Brad Wick, Duluth police K-9 training coordinator, said that Johnson has found his niche in police work.
“The qualities that Marc has shown during his career that made him a good K9 officer are common sense, good decision-making abilities and ability to make that decision quickly,” Wick said. “He has a strong work ethic, can work independently with little or no supervision, has the ability to lead, is personable and good in front of a crowd (for demonstrating Oakley’s abilities to the public), is patient and willing to sacrifice.”
Johnson said the biggest misconception about K-9 training is not so much about the dog’s training, it’s underestimating the training the handler needs on how to read the dog, how to work off each other and become one cohesive unit.
The officer said his dog can read him and know when he’s having a bad day.
“I received a lot of good advice from Brad Wick, but the thing that always stuck with me is how much the dog feeds off of you,” he said. “They always say that your attitude goes down the leash and into the dog. So if you are feeling frustrated or down and confused, the dog is going to read that and it’s just going to make things twice as bad. It’s important that you always keep an upbeat, positive personality, and the dog will feed on that and keep its personality, as well.”
Johnson, 29, is a 2002 graduate of Hibbing High School. After obtaining his law enforcement degree, he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Bemidji State University.
Johnson said Oakley probably will be on the force for five to nine years, depending on how his health holds up. K-9 officers are allowed to keep the dogs after they are retired, and Johnson said he will keep Oakley for life. He said his dog will have earned that.
“These dogs have abilities that no law enforcement officer, no matter how well they are trained, could ever have,” Johnson said. “They are so useful to us. They’re so essential to what we do on a daily basis, that if we didn’t have a K-9 unit we wouldn’t be near the organization that we are.
K-9s not only help us do our jobs. They keep the streets safe.”