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Willmar PD to welcome new K9 officer

Erica Dischino / Tribune Axel, the Willmar Police Department’s K9, peers out of Officer Chris Flatten’s police car Nov. 17 at the Willmar Police Department. 1 / 6
Erica Dischino / Tribune Axel, the Willmar Police Department’s K9, is a German Shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix. Axel’s responsibilities include narcotics detection and patrol work such as tracking and identifying subjects in danger. 2 / 6
Erica Dischino / Tribune Axel, the Willmar Police Department’s K9, rests after some play time at the Willmar Police Department Nov. 17. The K9 will have another furry co-worker toward the end of December or early in January. 3 / 6
Erica Dischino / Tribune Officer Chris Flatten embraces Axel, the Willmar Police Department’s K9. Flatten is Axel’s handler and will help the department choose a handler for the new police dog that will join the department at the end of December or in early January.4 / 6
Erica Dischino / Tribune A new K9 is expected to join the Willmar Police Department toward the end of December or early in January. Willmar elementary-age students will have the opportunity in late November to submit potential names for the new police dog on this drawing created by Spicer artist Michele Steffen. 5 / 6
Erica Dischino / Tribune Officer Chris Flatten plays with Axel, the Willmar Police Department’s K9, at the Willmar Police Department Nov. 17th. Flatten is Axel’s handler and is in charge of selecting another handler for a new police dog that will be joining the department at the end of this December or early January 2018.6 / 6

WILLMAR — The Willmar Police Department is adding a new officer to its ranks — of the four-legged variety.

The Police Department requested, and the Willmar City Council approved, the purchase of an additional K9 officer for the department to join fellow police dog Axel.

"It will be a big asset. It will have a big impact on our community," Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt said.

The K9 officer will be trained to sniff out and search for narcotics as well as engage in patrol duties, including suspect apprehension, article searches and tracking.

The department will purchase the new dog from Performance Kennels Inc., of Buffalo, the same organization that provided Axel in 2014. The council approved $9,000 for the purchase, money that will come from the department's drug forfeiture fund and not the regular city budget.

Like Axel, the new dog will be a German Shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix from Slovakia.

"They breed purely working dogs," said Chris Flatten, a Willmar patrol officer and Axel's handler.

Just as important as finding the right dog for the job is finding the right handler for the dog. Felt said the call for letters of interest has already gone out to officers.

"We want to look for the officer with the right drive and temperament," Felt said, not unlike the dog.

Flatten, and past K9 officer Craig Lang, will help the police supervisor team in choosing the next handler. They know the challenges and rewards that come with being a handler and it's important to share that knowledge with the candidates.

"We want the officers to know the responsibilities," Felt said.

The hope is to have the new dog, which will be about a year old, in Willmar by the end of December or early January. At that point the dog and his handler will spend about six weeks getting to know each other. The dog, like Axel, will live with his handler and family.

"Axel is a member of the Flatten family," Felt said.

After their bonding time, the dog and handler will take part in a four-week narcotics training course. There the dog will learn how to sniff out different types of drugs.

In his career on the Willmar force, Axel has helped uncover over 12 pounds of drugs with a street value of approximately $41,000 along with another $44,000 in seizures of items like drug paraphernalia, vehicles, weapons and drug proceeds.

"Narcotics enforcement continues to be a big challenge in the community. It is the root of a lot of our problems," Felt said, and having both Axel and a second dog will definitely help.

Following the narcotics training, the dog and handler will spend 10 weeks in patrol training. It is there they will learn all the other skills they will need to be a successful K9 team.

K9 police officers assist with many police duties, including searches for the missing.

"It is a life safety issue," Felt said.

With all the needed training and bonding time, the new dog probably won't be available for duty until about June.

Axel has become a great public relations tool for the Willmar Police Department, and Felt feels the new dog will be just as wonderful with the community.

"It is a great way for people to come up to us, engage with citizens," Felt said.

The public will be involved with the new dog from the beginning, as elementary-age students in Willmar will get to help name the new dog, like they did with Axel.

In 2014, the department received nearly 1,200 entries when looking for Axel's name. Two students came up with the name.

Felt hopes that by the end of November, a coloring sheet, designed by Spicer artist Michele Steffen, will be distributed to all the elementary schools in Willmar, including Community Christian School.

Students will be able to color and share their name choice. The new handler will then go through all of entries to find the perfect name for the new officer.

The student or students who submit the winning name will get their photo taken with the dog and handler, along with being able to proudly say they named a police dog. The handler and dog will also visit the winning classrooms.

While Axel, and the future Willmar police dog, are not pets, they are definitely dogs.

"Axel is a normal dog off-duty," Flatten said.

Axel loves to run, play with his favorite toys and give his human partner puppy kisses. He also loves his job, and Felt and Flatten hope the new dog will be just as happy as Axel is working for the Willmar Police Department.

"He love his work: It is his play," Flatten said.

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