- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

They are always on the front lines when it comes to fighting crime. They chase down armed criminals, sniff out illegal drugs and tirelessly search for those reported missing.

They are the eight dogs with the Alexandria, Va., police K-9 unit, and they're the only ones on the force who do dangerous work without wearing any kind of protection.

But, with the help of some concerned residents, that could soon change.

A group of seven Alexandria residents going by Paws For A Good Cause has begun a campaign to raise money to get the dogs protective vests that will shield them from bullets and knives. The cost of each vest: $1,116, taxes and handling fees included.

"These dogs put their lives out on the line every day just to keep us, the community, safe," the group's founder and chairwoman Pamela Stone said yesterday. "This is our way to say thank you for all of the hard work they've done."

The city's K-9 unit is busy. Last year alone, the unit handled 3,500 calls for service, said police Sgt. Guy Bishop, who supervises the unit. The dogs also conducted 1,000 building searches, 97 area searches and 117 narcotics searches.

So far, none of the department's dogs has been injured while on duty, mostly because their human partners look out for their safety, Sgt. Bishop said.

In one recent case, officers decided against sending a police dog after a knife-wielding man who was standing in front of his home because the dog didn't have any protection. Instead, police used a sage gun that shot rubber bullets at the man before apprehending him, police said.

"It's outstanding what this group has done," Sgt. Bishop said. "These dogs are called in day in and day out to dangerous situations, and these vests will definitely reduce the chances of them being seriously hurt or killed. And coming from the community, it makes it special."

The city police department doesn't have the funding to purchase the vests, and soliciting money is against department policy, said Amy Bertsch, a city police spokeswoman. The eight vests could cost up to $9,000.

"To have a fund-raising effort like this is a bonus," Miss Bertsch said.

Mrs. Stone and her husband, Geoff, who own two dogs, initiated the campaign in April after they learned the K-9 team had no protective vests.

Mrs. Stone called Sgt. Bishop and offered her help, which he quickly welcomed. "We were thrilled about this," Sgt. Bishop said. "It's nice to be remembered by the community like this."

So Mrs. Stone began recruiting neighbors and members of her dogs' play group to form the not-for-profit group to help out with the cause. Members have spent the summer organizing their efforts and putting together a list of community events in the fall.

"This is a very important group," said Tracy Nagel, an Alexandria resident and member of the Paws' committee. "These dogs need to be protected. In most cases, these dogs are the first ones to go into buildings to catch criminals. They have the right to be protected."

Today, the group is getting its first-ever contribution, an estimated $1,300 donation from Alexandria-based American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS), a worldwide educational association for security practitioners.

Association officials approached Mrs. Stone's group with the donation after the K-9 team performed demonstrations at ASIS' "Take Your Kids to Work Day" in April.

"We were looking for a way to contribute, to help the police department," said Eileen Smith, a company spokeswoman. "And this is a worthy cause."

Alexandria would be among a growing group of police departments nationwide that are equipping their K-9 teams with bullet-and stab-proof vests. Fairfax (Va.) and Montgomery (Md.) counties, for instance, have vested their dog teams over the last two years.

The trend began several years ago when a 3-year-old police dog named Solo, who worked for the Monmouth County Sheriff's Department in New Jersey, was shot and killed in the line of duty. Solo was sent into a building to apprehend an armed suspect and was gunned down.

Fairfax County's 13-member canine team received 13 vests two years ago when the Vienna Moose Lodge raised $7,500 to outfit each dog with protection.

"They're really worth having," said Lt. Patrick Ronan, who supervises the county's unit. "A vest can ultimately save a dog's life."

Montgomery County has 15 vests for its 17-member canine team after the county's Humane Society helped raise enough money to purchase the equipment.

"We go into the most dangerous situations with these dogs, so why shouldn't they be protected?" said Sgt. Lee Marsh, who supervises the county's team.

Anyone interested in making a contribution toward the vests can call Paws For A Good Cause at 703/299-8811 or send e-mail to pawsforagoodcause@yahoo.com.

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