WAYNE — The increasingly dangerous work of a police dog has gotten a lot safer for three members of the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department K-9 unit, who are now wearing custom-made bullet proof vests thanks to private fundraising efforts.
K-9 unit members Gino, Luna and Teo donned their state-of-the art Kevlar vests for a demonstration at the Wayne First Aid Squad building off Parish Drive on Wednesday afternoon. Each lightweight vest was custom-fitted and cost more than $3,000 and was purchased with funds raised by the Wayne Rotary Club, the Passaic County 200 Club and an animal-loving Clifton couple, Liz Taranda and Jay Dewan.
“We go into a lot of situations where they can get hurt, as well as ourselves,” said Sgt. Jamie Tangorra, the head of the sheriff’s department K-9 unit. Tangorra said Passaic County has 14 K-9 dogs, all of them on call 24 hours a day, doing the dangerous work of sniffing for bombs, drugs and weapons, and chasing suspects.
These new vests are lighter and much more streamlined than earlier models, Tangorra said. With a lightweight vest, the dog remains agile, instead of being weighed down by heavy clunky armor. That’s important, because when giving chase or tracking, a dog must be agile, he said.
Passaic County has never lost a dog in the line of duty, but 10 K-9 dogs were killed in action in the United States last year. Tangorra said dogs these days face another peril: the deadly drug Fentanyl, which is frequently found in heroin, and is much more powerful.
Tangorra said sheriff’s officers carry the spray naloxone, commonly called Narcan, to save people in the throes of narcotic overdose, and officers are prepared to use it on their dogs if necessary.
Maintaining a K-9 squad is expensive. Each dog costs between $8,000 and $10,000 and then must be trained for at least a year. Passaic County’s dogs are all Belgian Melanois, which are bred in Europe, and they respond to commands only in Dutch, Tangorra said.
Passaic County Sheriff Richard H. Berdnik said the K-9 unit is money well spent, and presented plaques to the Rotary Club, Passaic County 200, and to Liz Taranda and Jay Dewan.
“I’m really proud of the job they do,” Berdnik said. “They do a phenomenal job.”
The dogs live with their handlers. When they are on duty, they are trained to maintain strict eye contact with their handlers at all times. Frequently, the dogs are called in to find a weapon that a suspect has dropped, or locate a missing person who has wandered off.
Tangorra said even a metal object like a gun retains a human scent, at least for a short time, which the dogs can pick up. But the window of opportunity is often short, he said. Scent can be hard to pick up in extremely hot weather, he said.
Liz Taranda said the couple wanted to do something to remember their cat, Peter, who died of cancer, so they started a private foundation, Paw it Forward, to raise money for two vests. Barbara Schroeder, a member of both the Rotary Club and Passaic County 200, said donating a vest was done in part to remember the first responders who died on 9/11.
“We need to protect our police officers and we need to protect our dogs,” said Schroeder. “The dogs are working for us, too.”