BEREA -- Vader, the Berea Police Department's new police dog, really does have The Force with him. The all-black German Shepherd patrols the night shift with Officer Dennis Bort. He has a Jedi-like list of skills: detecting five kinds of illicit drugs, tracking, searching, apprehending bad guys and protecting his officer.
Bort, who has been with the BPD since 2001, says this is "his dream job." He's a veteran of the Ohio Air National Guard, flown aircraft with the Cleveland Police Department and served with Berea's Detective Bureau.
"I've had a lot of cool jobs and this is the one I never thought I'd get," Bort said. Bort is a huge Star Wars fan, hence the name Vader - after Darth Vader, the arch villain of the sci fi series.
At 22 months and 80 pounds, Vader is still learning, as is Bort, he said. A product of Slovakia, Vader was trained there as a puppy and then received more training at a special facility in North Ridgeville, where Bort also trained.
Police dogs and their handlers in Ohio must be certified. One element of certification is the Courage Test. Vader was required to apprehend a "suspect" (an officer in protective gear) while being fired upon with fake bullets. "He never hesitated," Bort said.
Dogs also must be recertified each year. That requires 16 hours of training a month.
"We're getting fine-tuned," Bort said. Vader has been with the department for only two months. "You have to know how to read the dog. If he's doing something wrong, you have to be on it immediately."
"He knows what he'd doing," Bort added. "It's me catching up to him."
Vader can detect heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, meth and marijuana plus derivatives. "He's found stuff already," Bort said. He doesn't enter vehicles to search for drugs (there's too much of a risk of injury to the dog, Bort said) but Vader scans the perimeter. If he smells a hint of some illicit substance, he sits down at the site of the odor. "If officers don't find any drugs in the car, they have the right to search people," Bort said.
The dog has different collars for different jobs. "He figures out what's up by what I put on him," Bort said.
Vader isn't confined to Berea. Any department with a mutual aid agreement with Berea can call on the duo for help. One such request from the State Highway Patrol took Bort and Vader to the East Side to search for a suspect.
Vader lives at home with Bort. "He's a normal dog at home," Bort said. "But he doesn't go for walks or the dog park. He's very quiet. Doesn't bark a lot." Vader gets along fine with Bort's kids. "He's on the same maturity level as my 14-year-old son," Bort said.
He also is very focused on his job. And frankly gets bored on his days off.
"To him, this is a game," Bort said. "This is fun. It keeps him engaged and interested." His prize for completing a task is his favorite ball, which Bort throws and Vader chases.
Bort said the Police Department is grateful to the Berea City Club for donating the $20,000 cost of purchasing and training Vader. The team's converted Ford Explorer features the City Club logo. Big Creek Animal Hospital donates Vader's routine checkups. The dog also has a special canine first aid kit and Bort is applying for a grant for a bullet-proof vest.
Future plans call for Vader to visit schools and civic organizations, perhaps giving demonstrations of Vader's many skills.
Vader is getting used to Berea, crowds and music concerts at Coe Lake and hanging out at the police station. "He's starting to take off now," Bort said.