Chaos and handler Brian Bennett

Steele County Sheriff’s K-9 Chaos’ — seen in this 2012 file photo with handler Deputy Brian Bennett — was one of the last K-9’s of the Steele County Sheriff’s Office. After a handful of years without a K-9 program, Sheriff Lon Thiele is working with community partners to bring the unit back. (Press file photo)

STEELE COUNTY — It has been a number of years since the Steele County Sheriff’s Office had a K-9 unit, but Sheriff Lon Thiele is optimistic that will change by spring.

During the regular Steele County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, the board unanimously accepted a donation of $2,550 from local organizations and businesses to go towards the new K-9 Project for the SCSO. Groups that contributed to the donation included Elk’s Lodge, Premier Bank, VFW Post 3723, Owatonna Motor Company, WFLA Lodge 127, Noble RV, VFW Auxiliary, and JJD Companies.

“I just want to express a big thanks and appreciation to those who have come forward to assist us in making it a goal to get a K-9 unit situated in Steele County,” Thiele stated. “It’s been a few years since we’ve had one, and we’re all ready to see it come back. It’s just a matter of making it work.”

Re-establishing a K-9 unit within the Sheriff’s Office was a heavily discussed topic during the 2018 sheriff’s race, where Thiele was challenged by Deputy Darrin Helget for the top law enforcement job in the county. Thiele won by a 7% margin, but took note of his oppositions priorities: specifically the K-9 unit.

“It was never a ‘no’ to the idea. It was just not a priority,” Thiele explained. “We had other items that needed to be financed and honestly it’s still that way now, but we’re looking at places that want to donate to assist in getting a K-9 program relocated to Steele County.”

A big win for the Sheriff’s Office in terms of kick-starting the initiative came with a forfeited vehicle that is scheduled to be outfitted as the office’s new K-9 squad car. Once that came into Thiele’s possession, he immediately began seeking candidates to designate as the K-9 handler.

“You need to make sure that you have the right handler. Not just everyone can be one,” Thiele explained. “You have to do a lot of training and keep up on your skills. That dog will only be as good as the handler.”

After asking interested parties to submit a letter of interest in the program, Thiele selected Deputy Caleb Buck to be the next K-9 handler in Steele County. Thiele noted that Buck’s passion for the program as well as his commitment to the upcoming responsibilities is what made him the ideal candidate for the role.

Buck has been with the Sheriff’s Office for two years.

Though Thiele is actively seeking funding avenues for this project, he stated that the program is still not a budget item for 2020. Because they are already in possession of an appropriate vehicle, however, Thiele believes that they need about $20,000 to get the program restarted.

“Once we have it started it will take a lot less to keep it here,” Thiele said. “If we had a good start with $20,000 I believe it would be something that we could keep supplemented and add to our annual budget.”

Ongoing costs for the K-9 program include vet bills, dog food, and continuing training.

As far was what kind of dog Thiele is hoping to acquire for the program, he said that it will be no different than when he hires a new deputy.

“You want what best first your community,” Thiele said. “This dog will have a dual purpose as a tracker and drug sniffer, but we want it to be able to fit into the community, too.”

While the dog will certainly be used to assist in vehicle or home searches as well as tracking individuals, Thiele said that having a K-9 unit within a sheriff’s office is a great way to help connect the public to their local law enforcement.

“Kids love dogs,” he laughed. “The K-9s really help draw people into us and help us all get closer. It’s an all-around good PR tool.”

Those interested in donating towards the Steele County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Project can contact the office at 507-444-3800.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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