- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

HAGERSTOWN, Md. | When the National Park Service needed a ballistic vest made on short notice for a 125-pound bomb-sniffing dog working the inauguration, a Maryland correctional officer stepped up.

Lt. Rita Beal, who refits ballistic vests for detector dogs, presented Park Service Ranger Martin Gallery and black Labrador Samson with a new vest on Friday, just in time for the inauguration. They will be working with the U.S. Secret Service in Washington on Tuesday, likely at checkpoints, Ranger Gallery said.

Four-year-old Samson is always at risk of being hit by a stray bullet during hunting-season patrols, Ranger Gallery said, but he wanted to be sure to get the massive dog extra protection for such a high-profile event.

“I wear body armor, but he has nothing,” said Ranger Gallery, who says he’s pleased his companion will be safer now.

Companies do sell vests for dogs, but they can cost $800 or more, too high for some agencies, said Maj. Peter Anderson, commander of the Department of Corrections’ canine unit.

Ranger Gallery said the park service wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

“Most things we get for Samson now are donated,” he said.

Many of the vests that correctional officers stopped using because they were no longer under warranty were still in good shape, said Bobby Shearin, the warden of the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland. So instead of sending the vests to a landfill, Mr. Shearin asked Lt. Beal, who works at WCI, if she could craft a vest for detector dogs. They have even tested some of the older vests on a range and found that they still stopped bullets, Lt. Beal said.

So far, she has made seven vests, has orders for six more for the Department of Natural Resources, and has received interest from agencies from as far away as Alabama and Massachusetts.

Lt. Beal said the new materials for the dogs’ vests cost just $35 and she donates her time. It takes her about a day to construct a vest for a dog, but it can take time to put together the right materials. Beal has a container of about 150 used vests at her home to choose from.

Some people may think that making protective vests for detector dogs is too frivolous, but protecting them from harm can also be seen as ensuring an investment.

A fully trained detector dog can cost up to $7,000 and the time trainers and handlers spend working with the dog costs money, too, Maj. Anderson said. Lt. Beal has made stab-proof vests to protect several corrections dogs in their work in the state’s prisons.

“They really are one of our best resources,” Maj. Anderson said.

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