By Cara L. Dempski
HUDSON — It is unclear if St. Croix County’s K9 officer Dex intended to pursue a career in law enforcement.
It is also unclear if the European import foresaw living out his natural life in the United States.
What is clear is that the eight-year-old Belgian Malinois is very good at his job. In fact, Dex is such a good police dog, he was named the United States Police Canine Association’s 2016 National Champion at the USPCA trials held in New Jersey last fall.
Dex’s human handler, St. Croix County Deputy Josh Stenseth, said the national trials can be very stressful.
“You go out there for one reason, and one reason only,” Stenseth stated. “You want to get certified, but the big reason is to take home that first place if you can.”
The St. Croix County deputy explained there is a strong desire among the officers and dogs to not let the local law enforcement communities they represent down by not performing to the best of their ability. Police dogs go through extensive training in obedience, detection work, and criminal apprehension and are certified annually.
Stenseth indicated St. Croix County’s K9 unit has not operated at full capacity in recent years, but he is hoping to turn that tide with some dogs he recently selected with the assistance of officers from the St. Paul Police Department.
The dogs chosen for the St. Paul and St. Croix County law enforcement agencies will go through a 16-week training academy run by the SPPD starting the first week in March. At the time of the interview for this article, Stenseth was looking forward to a trip to Kentucky to pick up six dogs for the academy’s March 6 class.
The deputy said his interest in law enforcement as a career was piqued while he was still a child growing up in Rice Lake, but he did not initially anticipate working as part of a K9 team.
Josh Stenseth has worked in law enforcement for the past 19 years. He became interested in the career while growing up in Rice Lake, and went on some police ride-alongs with a neighbor who was an officer for the Rice Lake Police Department.
The young Stenseth got to know the city’s K9 handler, Mike Nelson, and his canine partner Reggie. He did several ride-alongs with Nelson and Reggie while in high school and became attached to the idea of eventually becoming a K9 handler.
“I thought it was very interesting, very motivating, and very challenging,” Stenseth said. “I got hooked on it, and I wanted to do it.”
The deputy pursued education in law enforcement in high school and worked for another law agency for a few years before accepting a position in the St. Croix County jail in 2002. From there, he worked his way up to court security before transferring over to patrol work and taking a position in the K9 unit.
Stenseth’s first K9 partner was Ace. The duo were partners for four years before Ace was put to sleep after sustaining an illness that could not be overcome by extensive vet care and medication. Dex was introduced to the program in 2011 when he was four years old.
St. Croix County’s K9 unit was started by officer James Sander in 1998. Scott Knutson took over for Sander several years later. There are currently three K9 handlers in the Sheriff’s office: Stenseth, Sergeant Jason Sykora, and Deputy Justin Johnson.
Sykora joined the unit with his canine partner Doc in 2008, and Johnson and his partner Cash joined the unit in 2009. Cash was retired in 2015 for medical issues, and the department has alternated between one and two dogs since then.
Stenseth said he plans to use Dex for another year or so because he does not want to work the K9 officer beyond his physical and mental health capacities. He anticipates one of the new dogs he has brought to the area over the past few months will be his new partner.
As mentioned earlier, Dex is a Belgian Malinois. The breed originated near the city of Malines, Belgium, and was officially recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club in 1959. Belgian Malinois are classified as herding dogs, and the AKC website indicates the breed is noted for its intelligence, work ethic and stamina.
Belgian Malinois are very mentally and physically active, and require adequate work in both facets in order to avoid becoming bored. Their temperaments, mental acuity and physical attributes mean they are uniquely suited to work as police dogs.
Males are typically 24 to 26 inches in height, and weight between 64 and 75 pounds. Females are only slightly shorter, being 22 to 24 inches tall and clocking in between 55 and 66 pounds. Malinois dogs can be mahogany, black-masked with a fawn-colored body, tan, have black-tipped ears and a fawn-colored body. They often look like smaller, more refined versions of German Shepherds.
Dex went through a 12-week training program when he was selected to work with the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office at just 22 months of age. He was one of several dogs that traveled to New Jersey in September 2016 as part of a regional team at the National Police Dog Trials.
The USPCA trials
Stenseth has been to the trials six different times, the most recent being his win in New Jersey with Dex. He, Ace, and now Dex, have been to locations in Iowa, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. to earn yearly qualifications and earn the “big prize.”
The Stenseth/Dex duo attended the 2016 trials as part of a regional team consisting of St. Croix County and St. Paul officers. The USPCA has broken the country down into several different regions. Wisconsin is covered by regions 12 and 18; St. Croix County and St. Paul are part of 18.
Teams can be regional, where a team of five officers and handlers is comprised of multiple departments in the same region, or departmental, which includes officers and handlers from a single police department.
“We have a good relationship with St. Paul,” Stenseth said. “St. Paul sent out five guys, and we went out with St. Paul with five other guys as a regional team.”
The St. Croix County Deputy explained the teams usually travel to the site of the trials two or three days in advance to give the dogs an opportunity to acclimate to the environment. The trials start with informational meetings, practice sessions and social events the weekend prior to the trials, and the trial events themselves start on Monday morning.
Each K9 officer and his or her handler is placed in one of two groups for the competition. Group A started Monday morning with work in agility and obedience, while group B started with article and box searches. The two reversed tasks for Tuesday’s trials.
Group A then worked all day Wednesday on tasks related to apprehension, while Group B took a break and did its apprehension work on Thursday. Dex participated in group B.
Thursday also involved a public demonstration, fireworks display and evening barbecue hosted by the mayor of Gloucester Township, New Jersey.
Dex completed his article and suspect searches, or “scent work,” in 2:01 to earn first place and 179.67 points out of 180 possible in the event. He placed second in the criminal apprehension portion after earning 337.34 points of a possible 340. The first place K9 was Jesse, from the St. Paul Police Department.
The St. Croix County/St. Paul Police Department team earned the John P. “Sunny” Burke Memorial Award as the top region team. The St. Paul Police Department also won top honors as a department team, and brought home the Tim Jones Memorial Award.
But at the end of the competition, Dex stood above his canine peers with a total weekly score of 693.68, which earned him the title “Top Dog” and a championship ring indicating he is one of the best K9 officers in the country.
Stenseth admits he had some worries regarding Dex’s performance last September in New Jersey.
“He did well, but it was stressful,” the deputy explained. “It’s just like everything else: everything has to line up just perfectly on that specific day. Dogs are dogs, and things happen. They mess up here and there, just like people do.”
Stenseth said the dogs that go to the national police dog trials are truly the best of the best in this country, which makes for a pretty tight race. A lot of hard work goes into training the dogs, along with a lot of control work.
In an actual apprehension, one of the tasks the dogs are required to complete at the trials, the dog is released to chase the decoy suspect. Once the suspect is apprehended, the dog must respond to verbal commands to release the bite and sit, drop into a down position, or return to the “heel” position at the handler’s side. The dog must remain in its position while the handler approaches the suspect and completes a pat-down.
In an apprehension with gunfire, the dog is released for apprehension after the decoy fires two rounds and the dog again apprehends the suspect. In competition, this task requires a handler protection element, where the decoy suspect pushes away the handler, cuing the dog that it needs to engage in another bite to control the suspect.
This task can be completed with or without a verbal command to the dog, and requires that the handler recall the K9 officer’s bite a second time once the suspect is back under control.
Stenseth said he was proud of how well Dex performed at the trials, and was very pleased to have won the Championship Ring with him.
Nowadays, Dex spends the majority of his day in a patrol vehicle with Stenseth. The officer calls it “Dex’s secondary home,” and said the K9 officer is pretty comfortable in his space inside the vehicle. When he is not on duty, Dex lives with Stenseth and his family in St. Croix County.
Any bills the dogs incur or money needed to add more dogs to the program are raised by the unit and do not come directly from department funds. St. Croix County has been fortunate in the number of people and businesses who contribute to the K9 unit, as the community residents and businesses have paid for all the dogs and training since the program’s inception.
“It’s a fun job,” Stenseth finished. “We’re glad to have the community support we have.”