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Viewpoint: Reporter plays role of Cottage Grove K-9 chew toy

Despite its unflattering look, the bite suit prevented my arm from becoming a mangled mess. Sgt. Gwen Martin made sure to capture the moment as proof. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

I have always had a passion for my career as a journalist. I find it rewarding to share stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and keeping the public abreast of local issues. But sometimes capturing those more unique stories requires a little creativity and willingness to go above and beyond. Week four of the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department’s Citizens Academy was one of those times when I literally shook my head and said, “The things I do for my job.”

To be fair, the agenda for week four — K-9 demonstration — was pretty self-explanatory, and I had a feeling that I might end up becoming a chew toy by the end of the night.

The average person might see Cottage Grove police dog, Blitz, as a docile German Shepherd. A native of the Czech Republic, his wide-eyed appearance and short stature often gets him mistaken for a female, his handler/trainer police officer Mike Vandervort said.

“Blitz is just the sportier version,” he said. “He might be smaller but he’s all muscle.”

When set loose on a perp, the 8-year-old dog has a biting force that can effortlessly tear into skin and penetrate bone, Vandervort said. And his keen sense of smell, Vandervort added, is roughly 200,000 times stronger than the average human, which was evident when it took him mere seconds to find me hiding in the back of the police department.

I can’t recall a time when I was more nervous or uneasy in my entire life. I have some pretty standard fears — vaccinations, rollercoasters, bees, fish touching my feet — but there is no fear quite like the sound of a trained attack dog sniffing its way toward you.

I volunteered to play the part of a suspect on the premise that I might escape the Taser at the end of the academy. I also said getting attacked by the police K-9 wouldn’t be as bad; I was wrong.

I nervously put on the bite suit, which weighs a solid 20 lbs., or at least it felt like it to me. It was restricting, incredibly heat absorbing and wasn’t the most flattering outfit. Not only did I feel like the Michelin man, but I looked the part, too. Despite the suit’s appearance, it protected my arm and leg from becoming Blitz’s dinner.

A fellow female academy classmate went before me, hiding in the City Council chambers. Blitz was set loose and quickly found her. He latched onto her arm but she kept her cool, unlike me. Blitz did not see which door I went into, what room I was hiding in, let alone the corner of the police department in which I was cowering. But as soon as I was left to await his arrival, the adrenaline and nerves kicked in.

As a precaution and a sort-of baiting tactic, officer Vandervort yells three times, “Cottage Grove police K-9 unit, identify yourself.” I heard that echo through the department, giving me an idea of about how far away Blitz was stationed. I could tell those words were teasers to the dog. He instantly began to cry out, chomping at the bit to be set loose. Vandervort yelled the warning again, and my frazzled nerves almost made me give myself up. A third time he warned me and added, “The police K-9 is coming in.” Here we go.

My knees started to cave in and I began to sweat. I could hear myself whimpering out loud. I think the adrenaline heightened my senses because the noise of Blitz’s dogtags clinking against his collar sounded quick, frantic and close. For all I know it was seconds from his release to when he found me, but it seemed much longer. Finally, I heard his sniffing (remember his sense of smell is thousands of times stronger than ours) and he rounded the corner into a conference room in the department’s investigation pod where I hid. I was done for.

He smashed his way past chairs and lunged at me, biting my thigh first before deciding he’d rather take me out by my arm. Nearly losing my balance, I pulled back, which only made Blitz that much more determined. He thought this tug-of-war was a game. I, however, was just trying to keep my composure. I dragged him out into the open area, conscious of how lucky I was to be wearing the bite suit. I can only imagine how torn up my arm would have been had I been a real suspect.

A quick command from Vandervort and Blitz was back at his side. Visibly shaking and probably incoherently mumbling, I took off the bite suit and inched away from the dog. I could actually feel myself breathing again — no, panting. The build-up from waiting and waiting and waiting, to the initial attack, all the way through the supervised mauling had me wondering if there was this much over-thinking and over-analyzing involved in getting zapped with a Taser. Again, I’ll revisit that closer to the end of the academy.

I remember briefly burying my face in my hands, taking a deep breath and nervously announcing that I would never do that again.

Reporter Emily Buss is participating in the eight-week Citizens Academy, hosted by the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department. Follow her reports weekly in the Bulletin.