Dog helps Indiana University police with outreach

Zeus, a chocolate Labrador retriever, is trained to sniff out bombs and track down missing people. Last month, he took on a new role as the furry face of a new public outreach effort.

The Ask Officer Skaggs and Zeus campaign is a way for the Indiana University Police Department in Bloomington to connect with the community it serves. Anyone can ask questions about the department on social media using the hashtag #AskSkaggsnZeus. Officer Ryan Skaggs and his partner, Zeus, will answer them. The duo have already appeared in a series of videos introducing themselves to the public, but Skaggs said many people already knew Zeus.

“The dog gets a lot of name recognition,” he said. “When we walk around the (Indiana Memorial) Union, people call his name.”

That might be because the campus helped name him. About a year ago, the department’s first K-9 officer, Trey, was retiring after five years of service. Skaggs was selected to be the IU Bloomington department’s next K-9 handler. He chose as his partner a rescue from South Dakota who would go through three months of training at Ultimate Canine in Westfield, Ind. The department then sought name suggestions from the campus.

Now 2 years old, Zeus lives with Skaggs, who has two other dogs, as well as chickens and goats. Skaggs said Zeus gets along well with his pets, but Skaggs does have to treat the K-9 officer differently. For instance, Skaggs has to monitor Zeus’ food intake so he doesn’t become overweight.

Zeus is also the only animal Skaggs takes to work. While on patrol, Zeus rides in the car with Skaggs. When Zeus needs a break from the confined space, Skaggs will stop for a play break. Sometimes it’s just throwing a flying disc, but at least once each shift, it’s a training exercise. Once a month, the two go through an eight-hour training day, usually with the Indiana State Police.

“It’s constant,” Skaggs said. “We never have a time when we’re not training, because you have to keep him sharp and me sharp.”

The idea to use Skaggs and Zeus’ partnership for a community outreach effort came from Tracy James, spokeswoman for IU public safety. Part of her job is to find new ways for IU police to effectively communicate with the people they serve. She had seen a similar effort at the University of Wisconsin called Ask Officer Andy. She suggested IU create its own version.

“You need a police officer with a good personality to do outreach,” she said. “A lot of officers do, but having an adorable dog creates a natural draw.”

Communication can be difficult for IU police, Chief Laury Flint said. Students and faculty come to Bloomington from all over the world. They have a variety of experiences with law enforcement and bring those perspectives with them.

“Law enforcement gets painted with the same brush, regardless of where something happened,” Flint said.

She acknowledged a dog alone isn’t going to change someone’s opinion of police, but said it can help get the conversation started. And that’s the goal.

“We wanted to connect with the community,” Skaggs said, “and there’s really no better way than bringing a dog into the mix.

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