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Hubbard County’s K-9 and his bloodline, will compete

Sgt. Dan Kruchowski works with his malenois, Oakley, for an upcoming competition. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
Oakley chases down Hubbard County Dep. Dan May, who is running for his life. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 2

By Sarah Smith

Hubbard County’s K-9 officer may be approaching middle age, but Oakley is just reaching his prime.

The five-year malinois, a Belgian version of a shepherd, is training for yet another competition despite the fact he has a trophy shelf that would be the envy of any athlete.

Last week he was working out with his partner, Sgt. Dan Kruchowski, to hone more skills.

The two were working on control issues, taught by the man who raised Oakley his first two years.

Pat Pickar, a Crow Wing County deputy, laughingly refers to himself as Oakley’s “real dad.”

Kruchowski, assuming the stepdad role, said, “That way if he misbehaves it all goes back to the parenting.”

Malinois are now the choice of most canine units in the U.S. Oakley’s two nephews, Bali and Falco, belong to a Fargo K-9 unit and were training alongside.

There was no family reunion. The dogs were all business.

The three identical-looking dogs were taught to break off, how to stop chasing a suspect and get back under control of their handler.

Pickar said in case a suspect being pursued by a police dog runs into a crowded area, you need to “simulate total control and re-deploy.”

In other words, call the dog off.

The trials that Oakley will compete in, a region of the United States Police Dog Association, will likely have 100 dogs all competing in Mankato.

Oakley is trained to sniff out narcotics and chase down fleeing suspects.

“We’re continuously training, certifying, working the street,” Kruchowski said of his partner.

Indeed, Oakley was so “amped up” to work out, he lost a few points by jumping the gun when his test dummy ran off down the field.

Officer Dan May prefers to be called a decoy, not a crash test dummy.

He has worked with Kruchowski since the two were police officers for Park Rapids and Kruchowski’s partner was a dog named Pax.

May has trained extensively to be a decoy and there’s a lot of strength and endurance involved in his role.

“I can’t dance,” May laughs about the one skill police trainers want decoys to exhibit. Dancing is when a decoy jumps around with the intent of getting the dog to move prematurely. It’s a big part of competition. Police dogs must be in control at all times.

Pickar used to be a K-9 officer but when Brainerd cut its program, which other departments have done to cut costs, he went into a part-time business of raising and selling the malinois.

He trains the pups and uses them on the streets for a year until he’s satisfied they’re field-ready.

Pickar said an evolving philosophy has transformed the once fierce police dogs into adaptable animals.

Kruchowski’s children play with Oakley, who also has a kitty in his home.

Oakley practices finding a human concealed in a box, chasing down a fleeing suspect and just staying put, one of the harder exercises.

He hunkers down in the grass until he gets the command to go.

He chases down May and lunges at his arm to bring May down.

K-9s have different drives, Pickar said. Handlers practice taking them in and out of those drives.

The dogs go into “prey drive,” then are called back to go into “defensive derive.”

“You want a dog more dominant in prey drive,” Pickar explained.

Kruchowski said Oakley will continue training until he retires. If Oakley experiences good health, that could be until age 12.

The dogs get rewarded after they’ve accomplished a task. Mostly they get to chew the protective sleeves the decoys wear.

Oakley shakes his trophy and trots off the field happy.

Kruchowski said without the support of Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes and Chief Deputy Scott Parks, the local program would not have enjoyed the success it has.

“I’ve got great bosses,” he said. “We get a lot of support.”

Oakley performs at a fair number of gigs throughout the year and is likely Hubbard County’s most popular deputy.

He and Kruchowski have put on demonstrations at small town festivals and the annual “Night Out” celebration at the sheriff’s department.

Even though Oakley and his nephews have an identical look, “they all have unique personalities,” Kruchowski said.

“They’re really good with kids,” Pickar said. “My wife had a daycare in our house when I was raising them.”

At the end of the workout, Oakley is panting heavily.

So is May.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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