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There's a new dog in town; K-9 in training to replace Gator

BAXTER--Meet Rossi. This four-legged Belgian Malinois has big paws to fill as he is in training to be the top dog on the Baxter Police Department's K-9 team. Rossi will succeed K-9 Gator, who plans to retire at the end of this year. Gator and his...

Baxter police K-9 police dogs Gator (left) alongside Rossi wait for a command. Rossi will succeed Gator, who plans to retire at the end of this year.Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Video
Baxter police K-9 police dogs Gator (left) alongside Rossi wait for a command. Rossi will succeed Gator, who plans to retire at the end of this year. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Video

BAXTER-Meet Rossi.

This four-legged Belgian Malinois has big paws to fill as he is in training to be the top dog on the Baxter Police Department's K-9 team. Rossi will succeed K-9 Gator, who plans to retire at the end of this year.

Gator and his handler, Baxter Sgt. Matt Maier, have worked diligently side by side in the trenches-from tracking suspects in the woods to finding missing people to locating narcotics-for the past eight years. Now it's time for a new handler and dog to take a bite out of crime in the Baxter area. After being a K-9 handler for almost a decade, Maier said it is time for another officer in the police department to take over the job.

Maier and Gator plan to hand over the reins to Rossi and his handler, Baxter patrolman Joe Sundgaard, when their training is complete. Training began right after Rossi was purchased in late November. Maier and Sundgaard picked up Rossi at a breeding facility in Atoka, Tenn., called Zwart Masker. Zwart Masker means "black mask," Maier said, noting the black fur faces on the working dogs.

A portion of a $4,500 donation was used to purchase Rossi. The city received the money from the United States Police Canine Association Region 12 annual Canine Field Trials, which the city hosted in 2014. The money was set aside to help in purchasing a new dog when Gator retired.

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Maier said Pat Pickar, owner and trainer of CanAm Tactical K9 in Brainerd and Crow Wing County Sheriff's deputy, volunteered to go with the officers to assist in picking out the right police dog. When they got Rossi he was 8-weeks-old.

"They gave us the pick of the litter," Maier said."They were really interested in working with law enforcement. They do a lot of ring sport dogs and don't typically do a lot with law enforcement, so it was nice to work with them."

There were a few working Belgian Malinois up for adoption. Maier said it was Sundgaard's decision on which dog to select, as he would be the one working and living with the dog in the years to come.

Sundgaard has experience working with police dogs, as he has assisted Maier and Gator in their training since the city got Gator. Sundgaard began as an officer with the Baxter Police Department in 2004 and he has taken many bites from Gator. He has been the decoy, playing the "bad guy," helping with drug searches and setting up several scenarios to help with training. Sundgaard also helped Maier with the 2014 regional K-9 demonstration/trials, where there were around 80 K-9 teams who attended the trials.

Maier said he and Pickar both wanted Sundgaard to pick Rossi and he did.

"Rossi is a very level dog and is relatively calm," Sundgaard said. "We all agreed with getting Rossi. No matter what we did he was always calm and not overly excited. He would go back to a normal state (after an exercise) and I was impressed with that as he was a puppy."

"Rossi was very social and he had the drive when they showed us all the dogs," Maier added. "He also did some tracking at 8-weeks-old. Rossi showed the most potential and was looking for attention from us. He was the runt of the group, a lot smaller than the other dogs."

Training Rossi and having him bond with Sundgaard will take months. Rossi currently is staying with Maier, but they anticipate he will go home with Sundgaard at the end of July. Maier then anticipates a transition from Gator to Rossi, who will then be certified, to occur by November, as long as everything is going well and Sundgaard and Rossi are bonding well. Maier said everything has been going well so far.

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Sundgaard said being a K-9 handler has always been in the back of his mind as something to try one day.

"A dog is the greatest tool that law enforcement can have," Sundgaard said. "They have the nose and are basically the best locating tool there is. They can find the bad guys, they can find drugs and missing persons. They are brave. They are not really afraid of anything and are willing to go into dangerous situations where we don't want to send our officers into."

Sundgaard said it's not only a work commitment to be a handler, but also a family commitment. He had to talk to his wife, Christina, about bringing Rossi into the home with their two young children and two pet dogs. Being the K-9 handler will mean that Sundgaard will be "on call" more often, especially at night to search for a suspect on a pursuit or other police call.

"We came to the conclusion that this will be a good experience," Sundgaard said. "Rossi is going to be a good police dog."

Gator and Rossi are like brothers.

"Gator treats Rossi like a little brother," Maier said. "He has been so patient with him. He has taken Rossi under his wing and has been instrumental in training him."

Maier said during one training exercise the police dog was suppose to climb up a steep, graded staircase and Rossi wouldn't do it. Then Gator stepped in and ran up the stairs like a champ; and Rossi followed.

"Rossi has never hesitated since," Maier said of going up steep, graded staircases. "Gator has helped Rossi pass these little hurdles. We just have to be careful and be limited with what Rossi sees from Gator, as he can't always expect Gator to be there."

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Maier said the goal with Rossi is for him to be a dual purpose dog who will do street patrol work, where he will be an apprehension and tracking dog. Once he accomplishes those skills, Baxter police will have Rossi certified to find narcotics, which is anticipated in early 2018.

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