dog loks at police officer in front of assembled students

A K9 Officer And His Handler: Partners For Life

As with any relationship, it started out a little tentative, meeting as strangers, wondering if they would get along with one another. They quickly became seasoned co-workers, and now consider themselves partners for life. Who are they? K9 Earl and his handler, Lieutenant George Vinson of the Fargo Police Department. What makes this partnership unique (aside from that fact that one half of the partnership is a dog and the other is a human) is that Earl has literally grown up under the care of Officer Vinson, and he is now set to retire in July following ten years of active police duty at 11 years of age – that’s old for a police dog!

Police officer and his K9 police dog.Earl is a Belgian Malinois, a breed known for its sound physical characteristics. Earl joined the Fargo Police at ten months old, and he is trained to find illicit drugs and track people. Earl has proved to be excellent at drug detection. He has received dozens of awards from the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) over the course of his career. In 2010, Earl won 10th place at the National Detector Dog competition. The same year, he was awarded the USPCA National Case of the Year for finding three pounds of meth in the gasoline tank of an operational motor vehicle. In March 2014, Earl was awarded “Top Dog” at a regional detector dog certification; Earl had a perfect score and won first place out of 84 canine teams.

Despite Earl’s unprecedented success in drug detection at the Fargo Police Department, one of his favorite and the most important service he provides is visiting various community organizations and nearly every Fargo public and private school fifth grade classroom as part of the Smart Choices, Bright Futures program, to share about the Police Department’s canine unit. Having a positive impact on children is a critical aspect of the canine unit’s mission. Earl and Lt. Vinson made their final official presentation to the fifth graders at Clara Barton Elementary School on May 1, after more than 770 such presentations throughout Earl’s ten-year career.

Police officer gestures to dog laying down in front of assembled group of studentsLt. Vinson began the presentation by sharing information with the students about the Belgian Malinois breed and the universal canine “drives” or innate characteristics that are utilized in the training of police dogs. As a tracking dog, Earl’s training focused on three drives: Defense, Pack, and Prey. Defense drive is what keeps the dog safe. Earl’s pack drive is what allows the dog’s handler to become the “alpha” (leader) of his pack, what we would call family. Earl has been trained to obey his alpha at all times. A dog’s prey drive is how it can be trained to search for and find drugs or people. Earl knows that if he successfully finds the target of a person or drugs (the prey), he will be rewarded with his most favorite toy – a little orange chew ball.

Earl and Lt. Vinson demonstrated these basic drives and trained behaviors for the assembled Clara Barton students, and the two partners even showed off a bit for their audience. Responding to both verbal commands and hand signals from Lt. Vinson, Earl retrieved or ignored his toy as directed, sat down, laid down, rolled over, and barked. (In case you were wondering, Earl can bark VERY loudly!)

The assembled fifth graders asked great questions about Earl, his training and job duties, and even Earl’s career stats. Here are some of the answers:

  • The City of Fargo purchased Earl for $10,000.
  • Earl’s training started when he was three months old, and continued for six months. He and his handler also completed an intense six-week training course together.
  • Earl and his handler are assigned to one another exclusively. Earl accompanies Lt. Vinson at all times when they are on duty, even when they are not actively on a search or tracking assignment. Earl lives with his handler when he is off duty.
  • Earl’s first track was an elderly gentleman with Alzheimer’s who had wandered away from his care facility. Earl found him in an alley, resting behind a parked pickup truck.
  • The longest track Earl completed was over three miles, tracking a thief. It ended in downtown Fargo.
  • Earl has completed more than 60 tracks.
  • The largest single drug finds Earl has made were 50 pounds of marijuana and 20 pounds of methamphetamines.
  • Earl’s career drug finds have yielded more than $1 million in seized goods (including weapons, vehicles, and property) for the City of Fargo.

So, what happens to this successful partnership between K9 Earl and Lt. Vinson, now that Earl is retiring? Well, you will be happy to know that the two will still be partners, just no longer co-workers. Following tradition, a canine’s handler is allowed to purchase the dog from the city for a nominal fee (typically $1), and the dog becomes a family pet. In response to a question from Lt. Vinson, that is exactly what the Clara Barton students all thought should happen, so Lt. Vinson is taking their advice, and will soon become Earl’s owner rather than his police handler. Earl will continue to live with Vinson and his family.

students wait in line to pet K9 Earl, held on leash by police officerThe City of Fargo will acquire a new K9 officer in August, when Fargo Police Officer Samuel Bollman will travel to Pennsylvania to pick up and train with a Belgian Malinois puppy that will become his “partner for life.” Fargo citizens have been asked to help name the dog through submission of name suggestions and then by voting for the top three name selections. Officer Bollman and his new K9 partner will join Officer Dave Cochran and K9 Falco, and Officer Jeremiah Ferris and K9 Bali as part of the Fargo Police Department Canine Unit. It is expected that Officer Bollman and his K9 partner will take over community presentation duties from Lt. Vinson and K9 Earl.

Happy retirement, Earl! Welcome to pet ownership, Lt. Vinson! May you two partners continue to enjoy each other’s company for years to come.