Here’s the 411 on Rochester’s four-legged officers.

It’s 12:20 a.m.

Sergeant Wade Blazejak stands motionless in the inky darkness. Tight at his side, the dark form of Riot, his German Shepherd K-9, sits at attention.

It’s cool and quiet—the kind of quiet that comes when you’re standing in a field on the outskirts of town at midnight. A breeze rustles some tall grass. A car engine rumbles in the distance.

Dog and sergeant remain motionless.

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"Find him!"

Riot tears away from Blazejak’s side—so fast he’s a blur—to the first of six 5’-by-5’ boxes dotting the field. He circles the box with stunning speed, his nose low, his focus palpable. He does the same to the next box. And the next.

At the fifth box, Riot circles twice. Then starts barking—a strong, incessant sound that reverberates across the dark field. He stays low, holding his position at the box until, from a small door at the bottom of the framework, the shadowy figure of a man crawls out.

"Heel!" says Blazejak.

Riot returns to his side.

Invaluable team members

Blazejak and Riot are one of eight teams with Rochester Police Department’s K-9 unit, for which Blazejak serves as supervisor. (Another four teams make up the Olmsted County Sheriff’s department.)

K-9 teams do work in the department’s patrol division, the emergency response unit (also known as SWAT), the street crimes unit, the narcotics unit, and the school liaison unit. Six of RPD’s dogs are currently certified in narcotic work. Two of the dogs are trained in explosives.

Dogs’ extraordinary sense of smell and hearing make them invaluable team members. They’re regularly deployed for burglaries, break-ins, tracking suspects, locating weapons, detecting narcotics, discovering evidence, and, notably, helping to keep officers safe during high-risk calls.

But they can only do that work when they’re properly trained.

Even after K-9 certification, generalization training exercises—like the box search—are a vital part of keeping the K-9s prepared for on-the-job situations.

How vital? K-9 handlers make time to train their dogs during every shift.

The Regional Training Center on the south side of Rochester—where Riot just demonstrated the box search—is one of two centers where officers and their K-9s train. The other is located in northwest Rochester.

The box search is one of several training exercises the K-9 teams use to keep the dogs’ skills sharp. In the box search, a decoy (in tonight’s case, Officer Vedran Tomic) hides in one of several boxes while a K-9 runs patterns in search of human scent.

The exercise mimics potentially dangerous calls when police search for suspects who are, for example, hiding in a building or have barricaded themselves in a room. The K-9 can determine where they are hiding and alert officers.

Officer Tomic and his dog, a Dutch Shepherd named Titan, graduated with his K-9 certification in May. Tonight, Titan heels at Tomic’s side before being sent through a course that mimics several obstacles a dog might encounter on the job.

On Tomic’s command, Titan climbs a wooden ladder to a catwalk high above the earth that simulates structures like attic stairwells. He crawls low under a wooden framework reminiscent of a low deck or vehicle. He jumps hurdles that mimic fences or walls.

After each obstacle, Tomic gives a release command—signaling to Titan that he can relax now. That he did a good job. That it’s time to take a break from police work and just be a dog again.

The bond between officer and dog

In nearly 12 years of law enforcement, Sergeant Blazejak has worked in an emergency response unit (SWAT team), has been a field-training officer, and a drug recognition expert. But, he says, no assignment has been more rewarding than the K-9 unit.

"I love the process, the bond with the dog, the way he gives back," Blazejak says. "I love working with Riot to be able to find the suspects. To find the drugs. To help keep my fellow officers and the community safe. It’s a really, really cool job."

Like the RPD’s other K-9 teams, Blazejak and Riot work 12-hour shifts—in their case, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. (A schedule that prompts him to say, "You spend more time with that dog than you do your own family on a daily basis.")

In a typical year, Blazejak deploys Riot more than 125 times—using the dog for such tasks as breaking up fights, checking the perimeter of buildings during alarm calls, tracking suspects, and clearing buildings. And, of course, locating drugs.

"There’s not often a shift that goes by that I’m not using the dog on a traffic stop to check for narcotics," Blazejak says. Which makes sense. RPD’s K-9s help remove hundreds of thousands of dollars of controlled substances from Rochester’s streets each year.

And then there are the more memorable calls.

Once, Blazejak got a call about a driver who threw a gun out his car window and into a ditch. The caller gave a quarter-mile estimate of its location. Riot found that gun.

Another time, he and Riot were called to a house where a suspect barricaded himself in an unknown room with the threat of a weapon. Blazejak sent Riot in to pinpoint the man’s location.

"When you’re the one tasked with coming around a blind corner, more times than not you’re going to deploy that dog first—so you can go home at night," says Blazejak. "That’s the safety value these dogs provide."

Becoming a K-9 team

K-9 unit dogs are world-class athletes in addition to being critical team members.

But before they get to that point, they must undergo a vigorous and comprehensive training program that focuses on obedience, tracking, agility, article searches, and criminal apprehension.

Training starts with dog selection. RPD dogs are generally German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois or British Labrador Retrievers that come directly from Germany or the Netherlands—where, says Blazejak, breeding and bloodlines are more closely governed.

A new dog is typically introduced into the unit in mid to late fall, and is immediately paired with a handler. The two then spend two to three months bonding and getting to know each other.

This gives the dog, which is typically between 9 and 14 months old, time to grow with the handler. "There is zero pressure on the dog at this point," says Blazejak.

In late winter, training begins. If the department doesn’t have a qualified trainer on staff, the dog and its handler will attend an accredited K-9 school with the St. Paul police department.

The 12-week program wraps up around May or June—after which, the dog is patrol-certified and can start doing shift work with its handler. The dog will work as part of a K-9 team through the summer, gaining experience and exposure.

"They grow in confidence with each situation—with every suspect find, every dark building cleared, every environmental experience," says Blazejak. "Some dogs are capable of doing things right away, while others might need more time, just like humans."

After they’ve mastered their patrol work, many K-9 dogs are sent on to a four-to-five-week narcotic detection school. With that training, they’re certified to do narcotic searches in schools, airports, post offices, traffic stops, and other locations.

Training doesn’t end when the dogs become certified. The moment they graduate, daily maintenance training keeps the team’s skills polished.

It also keeps them prepared for testing—as all of Rochester’s K-9 dogs are tested and certified every year through the U.S. Police Canine Association.

"Our department needs to obtain that certification every year," says Blazejak. "If we don’t, we can’t put that dog on the street."

In addition to on-the-job training, Blazejak also takes Riot out for training on their days off. "When the family goes to bed, I’ll go out with Riot and track somewhere. Maybe we’ll go to Cascade Park, to the History Center, to Quarry Hill."

It’s hard work. But it’s more than that, too.

"Working in a K-9 unit is a privilege—and a lifestyle I take seriously. The dog gives back to me more than I ever could’ve imagined," says Blazejak. "The highlight of my day at work is to train and be with Riot. And the highlight of his day is when he gets to come out of the kennel and get in the squad car and go to work."

Last call

It’s 3:30 a.m.

Sergeant Blazejak and Riot have spent the last several hours training, answering calls, and patrolling the streets. Blazejak is getting ready to head back to the office to take care of some paperwork. But first he runs the plate on a suspicious-looking car.

His instinct was right. There’s a warrant out for the owner’s arrest.

Blazejak pulls the car over. He verifies the driver’s identity and, after returning to the squad to confirm the warrant, discovers that the driver’s license has been revoked. He handcuffs the man and puts him in the back of the squad car.

Now it’s Riot’s turn.

Blazejak unclips the dog’s lead from the front seat of the squad, and Riot immediately fires up. He barks to let Blazejak know that he’s ready to go. That it’s time to get to work.

With the officers who’ve arrived as back up, Blazejak opens the doors and trunk of the driver’s car.

Riot heels at Blazejak’s side. Blazejak issues his command.

Riot leaps into the car. One, two, three seconds pass before Riot’s bark pierces the quiet dark of the early Saturday morning.

Frozen in place, his focus trained on the object he’s been instructed to find, Riot only stops his alert cry when Blazejak gives the release command.

The dog returns to his handler. As directed by their K-9 partner, the officers locate marijuana in a cup holder. Methamphetamine in a bag in the back.

"Good boy," says Blazejak, rubbing his partner’s neck. "Good boy."

Retirement Plans

When they’re not on the job, K-9s live with their handlers. "Riot is as much a part of our family as our house dog is," says Wade Blazejak, RPD’s K-9 unit supervisor. "The only caveat is that he doesn’t stay in our house. There’s a boundary there. At the end of the day, he’s still a city resource—and while he’s my responsibility, he’s not my dog."

A purebred German Shepherd from Hungary, Riot stays in an indoor/outdoor kennel in Blazejak’s garage.

For now, at least.

For most handlers, the officer/K-9 bond does not end when the K-9 retires, which is typically at 7-10 years old. And this team is no exception.

When it’s time for Riot to retire from police work, Blazejak will sign a waiver that releases the city of liability. And then the dog will officially come home to live with his family.

For Riot, who is nearly 6 years old, that day is coming in the next few years.

"He’s in the prime of his career," says Blazejak. "But he’s not a rookie dog anymore. And after all we’ve been through together—all of the calls, all of the training hours, all of the blood, sweat and tears—it’s going to be a bittersweet day when he has to retire and not come to work with me anymore."

K-9: Titan

Handler: Officer Tomic

Trained in: Patrol

Training in: Narcotics

K-9: Duke

Handler: Officer Bradley

Trained in: Patrol & Narcotics Detection

K-9: Kola

Handler: Officer Red Hill

Trained in: Patrol & Narcotics Detection

K-9: Riley

Handler: Officer Pretzloff

Trained in: Explosive Detection

K-9: Sarge

Handler: Officer Roussell

Trained in: Explosive Detection

K-9: Wrecker

Handler: Officer Clement

Trained in: Patrol & Narcotics Detection

K-9: Ty

Handler: Officer Osborne

Trained in: Patrol & Narcotics Detection

K-9: Rajko

Handler: Deputy Mangan

Trained in: Patrol & Narcotics Detection

K-9 Cobra

Handler: Deputy Waletzki

Trained in: Patrol & Narcotics Detection

K-9 Jango

Handler: Deputy Jones

Trained in: Patrol & Narcotics Detection

Not pictured:The area’s newest K-9 dog, Axel, and handler Deputy Schmidt for Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office.