Story by Emily Dieckman Photo by Tucson PD
Tucson Police Department’s K-9 Unit focuses on public outreach, an improved facility and a robust social media presence.
When Sgt. Paul Sheldon first became a police officer, he had three goals: to be an undercover cop, to be a canine handler and to be a sergeant.
“K-9 is the cream of the crop,” he says. “When the police need help, they call K-9. I wanted to be the guy who was out there hunting for the baddest of the bad.”
Sgt. Sheldon has been in the police force for 19 years. He spent just over nine of those years in the Tucson Police Department’s K-9 Unit before he was promoted to sergeant and had to switch assignments in 2013. In January 2018, he returned to the K-9 Unit as its supervisor.
In his new position, he performs administrative duties, leads outreach efforts and oversees a team of nine handlers and their dogs. Though he doesn’t have a dog himself anymore, his experience in the unit means he’s familiar with the work his handlers are doing—and they respect him because he has the on-the-ground experience to accompany his administrative expertise. He keeps so busy with the team that, for the most part, he doesn’t miss having his own dog.
“I have nine dogs, is what I tell everybody,” he says. “I don’t need any more.”
The nine German shepherds in the K-9 Unit and their handlers are responsible for tasks like conducting area and building searches for hidden suspects, searching for lost people and protecting officers in potentially dangerous situations. Three of the teams also work in narcotics detection, including Officer Ryan Danaher and his dog Bosco, who have been on the unit for about two years. They went through their training at the same time.
“I was a new handler, so I was learning along with him, and now he’s certified in patrol, he’s certified in searching for suspects, searching buildings and narcotic detection certified,” Officer Danaher said. “We’ve been in quite a few dangerous situations together and he’s really done well… It’s really rewarding to be able to work as a team and catch bad guys.”
Another one of Sgt. Sheldon’s responsibilities is to hold tactical debriefs any time the dogs and their handlers face an unusual situation—for example, K-9 Ivan lost his life last year to an armed robbery and carjacking suspect in the line of duty. The excitement and meaningful nature of the work go hand-in-hand with the danger.
“That was one of the hardest moments of my entire career,” Sgt. Sheldon says. “I’ll never forget.”
Since he’s been in charge, he’s started remodeling the warehouse attached to their office, historically used for not only the dog training, but for storage for anyone who needed it. They’ve added a chain link fence to give the dogs their own separate area, rubber flooring and plan to construct an obstacle course for training purposes. He’s also ramped up the unit’s social media sites which all the offices run as a team. There, they post photos of the K-9s after taking calls, around the office and even dressed up for Halloween.
“It gives the guys a break from their extremely dangerous, and very real, jobs,” he says. “All of us have contributed and posted—even the handlers I wouldn’t have thought would participate.”
One of the most important parts of the unit’s job, Sgt. Sheldon believes, is interacting with the community—showing them exactly who the officers are that have vowed to “protect and serve,” and introducing them to the heroic K-9s on the team as well. Last year, they did 65 public demos.
“The beauty with our unit is that we could send all nine of our dogs out into a crowd of people with no concerns whatsoever, because they’re super friendly,” he says. “It gives the public a better understanding of what we do. They can see these dogs don’t just go out in the middle of the night and look for bad guys, that we can go out on the UA mall and walk our dogs with your dogs.”
One of the unit’s next scheduled appearances will be at the Tucson Dog Magazine’s first annual WOOFStock & Adopt-A-Thon: a day full of demonstrations, adoptable dogs, Woodstock-themed costume contests for both humans and canines, low-cost vaccinations and microchips and plenty of food trucks. Dogs in the K-9 Unit will run through obstacles, handler and dog teams will visit with people and members of the public can even put on bite sleeves so they can experience a K-9 bite safely for themselves.
Meet Sgt. Sheldon and the rest of the K-9 Unit at WOOFStock from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 10 at the Reid Park bandshell. The event is FREE and the K9 Unit will be doing a demonstration at about 2p.