By Sue Botos
Except for the collar proclaiming him a police K-9 dog, 7-year-old Rylo appears to be a friendly pet, bounding up to a visitor at the Rocky River police department with a toy in his mouth.
“It’s OK to pet him,” Patrolman Garth Selong, Rylo’s handler, assured the wary guest. “He knows everyone here is a ‘good guy.'” Rylo, along with 4-year-old Jinx – who, with handler Patrolman Ed Kolenc, were working the night shift – comprise the city’s K-9 unit. Begun by Selong eight years ago, the program is close to his heart.
“I’d be devastated if it was ever discontinued,” said Selong, who approached then Sgt. Bill Crates with the idea of a K-9 unit after serving for three years. “I asked him why we don’t have dogs,” recalled Selong, adding that after hearing their proposal, former police chief Donald Wagner presented the idea to the city.
“Initially, it took about three-and-a-half months to get going. Since this was a brand-new program, we had to drum up support,” he recalled, stating that a few local businesses held fundraisers, donations were made for the first K-9 vehicle and Dr. Brian Forsgren of the Gateway Animal Clinic offered the first year of vet care for free.
Noted German shepherd breeder Tom Schmidt, who also trained the dogs, donated Rylo,whom he identified as K-9 material at 10 weeks old.
“The time just flew. My wife said the next thing she knew, there was a dog sleeping under the Christmas tree,” remembered Selong.
“He’s my dog and he lives with me,” Selong said of Rylo, with whom he has worked since the dog was 3 months old. He added that his partner has grown up with his three children, ages 3, 9 and 11, and participates fully in every part of family life, although, due to his exuberance, he has to be contained during parties.
“He’s actually scared of my wife because he’s not around her as much,” stated Selong. The police dogs are owned by the city, which covers all food, insurance and veterinary care. Selong said the price for the unit amounts to less than $3,500 a year.
Selong explained that Rylo knows when to go into work mode.
“He is command-specific and he reacts based on conditions and voice inflections. They (the dogs) use their instincts to adapt to a situation, such as someone approaching the car,” said Selong, adding that he uses German commands.
It takes a minimum of 240 hours of training to file for certification as a K-9 dog, and a total of 390 hours for patrol duty. Training is ongoing, with units from other cities and the Metroparks gathering in the park on many Tuesday mornings to hone their skills.
Part of that training, said Selong, is for handlers to act as “decoys” for other dogs, wearing padded suits while the dogs simulate detaining a “perp.” Despite the padding; he said that the strength of the bites has left him with huge bruises on his arms.
Contrary to what’s often seen on TV, Selong said the dogs are not trained to attack, but rather to “bite and hold” with the purpose of detaining a suspect on command. Asked if Rylo had ever bitten him, Selong replied, “Just once.” When the dog was 15 months old, Selong was performing the routine training measure of taking the dog’s food away during mealtime, and Rylo expressed his distaste with a bite. Selong disciplined the dog by reacting like a canine, actually getting on the floor and biting back. “My wife walked into the kitchen, shook her head and walked back out,” he recalled.
Also qualified as a drug-detecting dog, Rylo, along with Selong, has assisted other agencies with searches including U.S. Customs, once finding drugs being smuggled in a statue from the Dominican Republic. They are a part of the DARE program, frequently visiting the city schools. He was even named by a St. Thomas School fifth-grader during a contest. Rylo knows his way around the middle school so well, Selong says, he checks himself in at the office and makes his way to fitness teacher Wendy Crites’ room, often ahead of his handler.
Selong paused when asked about Rylo’s retirement someday. “I’ve spent three quarters of my career with him. Not being with him would be strange,” he said, adding that police dogs often work until the age of 10. “I only want to work him long enough that it would not affect his quality of life after retirement.”