The bond between humans and animals is one that can run deep. For many, dogs are welcomed into homes as pets, but for some, these animals act as their allies and partners on the job.
Orange County Sheriff’s Office Master Deputy Jason Forgey, a 22-year veteran of the force, and Gunther, his 17-month-old K-9 officer, are just beginning to develop their working relationship. They are still in the dating phase, jokes Forgey, pulling out his training journal to see that their first day on the job together was March 7, 2016.
“We’re still learning each other’s behaviors,” Forgey says. “He’s learning me as much as I’m learning him.”
A Team on the Job
Gunther, a Belgian Malinois, is Forgey’s sixth K-9 partner since he began with the K-9 unit in 2001. Preceding Gunther on the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team was a German shepherd named Gryphon, who is now retired and a full-time pet of the Forgey household.
Gryphon retired after a mass and bulging discs were discovered in his spine. “We were running a track and his back leg started to wobble,” Forgey says. “From past experience, I immediately recognized it as a sign of a spinal issue. I downed him [gave the down command] and began checking him for injuries. He was in his prime. He was a push-button dog at that point. We were a great team – fluid is the word.”
After a late-night visit to the veterinarian and a CAT scan the following day, Gryphon eventually went home with medication, which Forgey says successfully treated his condition.
“If you look at him, you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong, but he can no longer work,” Forgey says. “One fall and he’d be paralyzed for life.”
Forgey is most renowned for his work with Gerus, a German shepherd and highly trained cadaver search dog. The two worked together on the Casey Anthony, and Forgey testified in 2011 during the trial.
“One hundred percent of our work was admissible in court,” Forgey says. “I was the one they called to sweep the car and sweep the house.”
Gerus has since passed away, as have Forgey’s three previous dogs: bloodhounds Garrett and Ike as well as a German shepherd named Bones. Forgey speaks warmly about each dog, which is a testament to the bond he shared with each of them.
A Family Member at Home
“Our dogs come home with us so the bond is closer,” Forgey says. “I spend more time with Gunther than my family because they don’t come to work with me.”
Forgey’s wife Erica and their children, Jason Michael, 9, Carolyn, 6, and Brandon, 4, are more than happy to share their home with Gryphon and Gunther. Brandon is enthusiastic about how Gryphon and Gunther protect his family and spreads his arms as wide as they can go when asked how much he loves them. Jason Michael and Carolyn agree that they love the dogs very much.
Erica says the kids love having the dogs, who are like family members, around and that they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I get attached too,” she says. “I feel safer that he has a dog with him. I know that Gunther will protect him without hesitation. At home, Gryphon knows what his job is; he’s always on the move. He follows the kids wherever they go and every night he does a search of the whole house before he kennels up. He’s such a smart dog.”
Traditionally, K-9 officers live with their trainer throughout their working career to form a closer bond. Upon retirement, the K-9 is signed over to their officer or, if he or she is unable to take them, the officer handpicks the K-9’s next home. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit is comprised of 20 teams or trainer-dog pairs. Eighteen dogs are full-service dogs that specialize in EOD, cadaver or narcotic searches and two dogs are bloodhounds.
“I don’t think there are any handlers in here who can’t say where their dog is,” Forgey says. “You get very attached to them. They are part of your family. They’re your best friend.”
Training for the Job
Forgey, a Winter Park High School graduate and lifelong resident of Orlando, admits he always knew he wanted to be a member of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit. He says his penchant for animals formed from the many pets he had growing up, including a German shepherd named Stormy, two other dogs, cattle and chickens.
Currently, Forgey and Gunther are finalizing their training before they join the K-9 unit full time. He says they have been working on building searches. During this training, Gunther is sent down a hallway and Forgey wants him to smell under each door on his way back, a technique called purging. He explains that K-9 dogs deeply inhale and then exhale, and if the dog does this three times, then the officer knows he or she has something. Forgey is training Gunther to bark right away to alert him to anything he has found.
“They just want to make you happy,” Forgey says of K-9 partners. “They work just for you. The work is a game to them. The more fun they are having, the better dog will behave.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office receives its K-9s from specific breeders in Germany who start their working dog training very early to enhance their inner drive.
“We call it ball drive,” Forgey says. “If you throw a ball into tall grass, will the dog go and hunt for it if they can’t see it, or will they give up? That impetus, that drive, that’s what you want in a police dog. We also look for prey drive and self confidence. We look for the alpha dog, the one who wants to lead from the front. A true leader has that look that says, ‘Follow me.’”
Forgey believes the service that K-9 offers provide is bar none. He notes that these dogs are brave, smart and intelligent and are not given the credit they are due often enough.
“I’ve been working a dog every day for 15 years, and I’m still amazed by how intelligent they are,” he says. “And I know he’d protect me with no hesitation. The bond we have is so strong.”