Burlington Police Officer Ryan Smith and Asta, a roughly five-year-old German Shepherd, worked together from November 2016 to a couple months ago when Smith left the department. It now appears an entirely new K-9 unit could soon be working in Burlington.
Police Chief Dennis Kramer said Smith's departure left no one professionally trained to work with and care for Asta, so she is being boarded at K-9 Working Dogs International in Florida until a new handler is ready. That’s the facility where the dog was trained.
While in Florida, Asta is also being treated for a health-related issue that surfaced this spring. The ailment caused the dog to lose weight, making it more difficult for her to work.
Kramer said the owner of the facility recently called him and said Asta’s health is improving and that she would be on track to return to work in Burlington once a new handler is identified. But the owner also offered to buy back Asta and sell the department a new, younger dog at a reduced rate.
Kramer said the cost to keep Asta with the BPD would be about $7,200 compared to about $9,300 for a new dog that’s 1 or 2 years old. He said most K-9s work until they are 7 years old.
“If I kept Asta,” said Kramer, “I would have to come back to you in a year or two to purchase a new dog. I would guess you are going to pay $12,000-$14,000 for a new dog, not including the handler training.”
During this week's workshop, Alderman Matt Rinker said, "I don’t know how you can say no to that. “To be able to extend the working life of our canine, of that program, is a no-brainer.”
Kramer said a special account created to fund Burlington’s K-9 program through private donations has enough money to purchase the new dog and to pay the annual $10,000 stipend to the handler to care for the dog outside of work.
He said beyond that, the cost of the stipend might fall on the city. Aldermen did not seem to mind that during the workshop.
“That is still pretty cheap for an officer,” said Alderman Jon Billups.
Kramer said he has 6 or 7 officers interested in being a handler, so he will interview them to see who is the best fit for the program.
Meanwhile, a Go-Fund-Me page has been set up to try to raise money to help former handler Ryan Smith purchase Asta from the training facility. It has raised more than $2,500 in its first two days.