by AMELIA WEDEMEYER
With her dark face and black-tipped ears, Cleo stands out against the blanket of winter snow that covers the entirety of Lake Park. The three-year-old Belgian Malinois, a team member in the Winona County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), sits patiently in the snow as she poses for pictures dressed in her new ballistic vest. Cleo’s vest, too, stands out with its black color and the word “SHERIFF” printed in large, goldenrod letters. Outfitted in her new K9 uniform,Cleo emits a sense of power; the uniform highlights her abilities as a member of the WCSO.
“I’m very happy that she got it,” said her handler and partner, Deputy Adam Carlson. “She fearlessly goes into situations that oftentimes we don’t feel comfortable going into.” The potentially lifesaving body armor will help protect Cleo, who is trained in narcotics detection and patrol work, which includes tracking suspects and missing persons. For Carlson, Cleo’s vest is crucial when they have to apprehend suspects who may be armed and dangerous. “It will help protect her from the dangers of the job,” he explained.
Carlson said that he was contacted by members of Vested Interest in K9s, a charity based in East Taunton, Mass., that provides law enforcement dogs with bullet and stab protective vests. “They offered their services and we were able to receive a vest, along with [one for] the Winona Police Department (WPD),” Carlson explained. The WPD’s K9, Neko, is also a Belgian Malinois. Both Cleo and Neko, along with K9 officers from the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, Fairmont Police Department, Leech Lake Tribal Police Department and Duluth Police Department, were outfitted with ballistic vests provided by an $8,500 grant funded by the French Foundation and Vested Interest in K9s.
Although Cleo has had law enforcement tools on her body before, including a tracking harness, the vest required a bit of getting used to at first, according to Carlson. “We make it fun,” he said. “When she puts on the vest we’ll get the ball out and play.” Cleo’s new vest is also much better suited for her than the vest she was previously using, which belonged to her predecessor, Blitz, who was a male German Shepherd. “The old vest was basically a useless tool because Blitz was much bigger,” Carlson explained. “It was old and it would fall off [of Cleo].” Based on Cleo’s direct measurements, the new custom-fit vest ensures Cleo’s safety, which is one less thing for her fellow WCSO officers to worry about when going into potentially dangerous situations.
While she was born and bred for law enforcement work, Cleo, who lives with Carlson, is particularly skilled in her job as a K9 officer, and has won several awards with Carlson, including seventh place overall at the United States Police Canine Association’s 2013 National Patrol Dog Field Trials. Cleo and Carlson were also awarded 2013 Rookie of the Year at the event’s regional competition.
At three years of age, Cleo is at the beginning of a career that lasts anywhere from eight to twelve years depending on the health of the K9 officer. Now with her protective armor, the longevity of Cleo’s civic service seems safely intact. “She covers our back and this vest will cover hers,” Carlson said.
Vested Interest in K9s announced its annual calendar on sale now for $15 at www.vik9s.org and at select retailers. Proceeds from the sales will provide bullet and stab protective vests.