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Gresham Police K9 trainer Shawn Debler inspired by dogs' dedication, friendship.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Officer Shawn Debler said he spends more time with Basco than he does with his own family.Coming from a law enforcement family, Gresham's Shawn Debler always dreamed of being a police officer — but it took his first call on the job to truly discover his passion.

While on patrol in his first year with the Gresham Police Department, Debler was called in to apprehend a suspect. The man managed to flee, but K9 officer Kizzy, a small Black Labrador, saved the day. She tracked the suspect eight blocks through sideways wind and rain, eventually finding the man hiding in a bush. Debler was amazed.

OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO - Gresham Police Officer Jeff Culp and his K9 partner Cash spent time alongside the community during City Fest. "Right then and there I knew working with police dogs was what I wanted to do," he said.

Debler is now a K9 handler and unit trainer for Gresham police, an operator with the East Metro SWAT K9 unit and a state trainer with the Oregon Police K9 Association. He has been with the Gresham department for 14 years, and has helped shape many of the dogs that have served the community.

He is currently paired with Basco, an 8-year-old half German shepherd, half Belgian malinois. Basco, the oldest of three K9 officers in Gresham, works patrol and narcotics.

The department has worked with trained dogs since 1983. During that time, no officer or innocent has been injured with a K9 officer working a case. The dogs are able to handle calls that would usually take multiple officers, cutting back on the man-hours needed to serve the community. The department now has three K9 officers — Basco, Recon and Cash.

"I love this job because we make it safer for citizens and officers," Debler said.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: GRESHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT K9 UNIT - Gresham K9 Handler Shawn Debler has partnered with Basco the German shepherd for six years.Chasing tails

Becoming a handler is a long process that requires more training than other specializations within the department. The appointment lasts for six years, with Debler noting that for the first five most are just "chasing their dogs' tails." The officers who do best are self-starters with good decision-making skills on when to deploy the K9, as it always equates to a use of force. It also takes a high level of fitness to keep up with their four-legged partners.

Officers go through an initial four to 10-week training before they are paired with a dog anywhere from 14 months to 3 years old. The dogs live with their handlers at specially made kennels in their homes, and have normal interactions with the officer's families.

"You want to find a relationship that is successful," Debler said. "The dog has to be able to trust the handler. You have to build a relationship — every emotion and anxiety you feel travels down the lead."

Handlers have to be patient with the dogs, especially when they first start as they are more prone to mistakes. That is why the training never stops, so when handlers and their dogs aren't responding to calls, they are working with Debler.

The dogs' primary mission is to serve as a locating tool — finding suspects, narcotics and articles of discarded evidence. Thursday night, Jan. 18, one of Gresham's K9 officers found a firearm that had been tossed away after a shooting.

"Chief (Robin) Sells has been amazing to work with," Debler said. "It used to be frowned upon to cross train dogs as patrol and narcotics, but the quality of the animals has improved now."

After their service is completed, going into retirement either because they get too old or fall ill, the dogs are taken in by either their handlers or another police family.

"They end up getting babied like crazy," Debler said with a laugh.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: GRESHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT K9 UNIT - Greshams Shawn Debler handles the training duties for the K9 Unit. Here he works with his own dog, Basco.Close bond

Debler has worked with many dogs in his career, with the unlucky streak of having some forced into retirement too early.

The first two dogs he was paired with were unsuited for police work, something that is discovered during the training process. He handled K9 Koda for 9 months, a "rock star" who located 50 suspects during his career. On Koda's final deployment, he helped SWAT officers locate and apprehend an armed sex offender. But during that operation there was a landslide that injured Koda's leg, leading to an early retirement.

Debler then worked with K9 "Jax" for three months, who retired after suffering degenerate joint disease, and then K9 "Dax," who died from cancer.

"Seeing your dog get hurt or sick is one of the worst feelings you can imagine," Debler said. "I spend more time with my dog than my family. You find yourself talking to them in the car."

Twelve months into his service, Basco was attacked and badly injured while on the job. He had tracked a criminal, and was attempting to subdue the target, when the man began to beat Basco with a stick. It wasn't until officers arrived a few moments later that they were able to stop the attack.

"That changed the dog," Debler said. "It took the puppy right out of him."

Basco has gone on to have a successful six-year career with the Gresham Police Department. He has caught suspects more than 250 times, helped secure thousands of others through deployment and located more than 300 articles of evidence. He was also the first Gresham dog to be cross-trained as both a narcotics and patrol officer and be fully integrated with SWAT.

"I am lucky to be able to do this important work alongside amazing handlers and the dogs," Debler said. "This really has been a dream job."

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: GRESHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT K9 UNIT - Basco was the first Gresham police dog to be cross-trained as both a narcotics and patrol officer and also was the first dog to be fully integrated with SWAT.Meet the Gresham Police Department's three K9 officers

Basco

8-years-old

Half German shepherd, half Belgian malinois

Patrol and narcotics

Handler: Shawn Debler

Recon

4 years- old

German shepherd

Patrol and narcotics

Handler: Jay Justus

Cash

less than 2-years-old

Black Labrador

Narcotics

Handler: Jeff Culp

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