New body armor protects police dogs

State trooper K-9 handler Michael Gremillion plays the bad guy in a demonstration as patrol dog Ace takes him down behind the New Market Fire Department on Friday afternoon. The Virginia State Police recognized three area businesses for donating ballistic vests to three area patrol dogs. Rich Cooley/Daily

NEW MARKET – Several Virginia State Police dogs on patrol in the area are now outfitted with the most advanced vests in bullet protection, vests that can make a life-saving difference the next time they venture into a darkened building or are tracking an armed suspect.

The dogs, the vests and their trainers appeared Friday at a news conference, along with several businesses that paid for each of the three $750 vests.

Everyone was pleased with the lighter weight and ease of wear the vests have provided since the three dogs, Ace, Baron, and Argo began wearing them on patrol three weeks ago.

The dogs and their handlers, senior trooper Adam Waybright, of Winchester; and troopers Michael Gremillion, of Winchester, and Jesse Lewis, of Warrenton, patrol within a 5,000 square mile area that includes Harrisonburg, Winchester and Warrenton. Lewis works with Ace, Waybright with Argo and Gremillion with Baron.

Troopers are not the only ones who face the risk of lethal on-the-job violence. Eight police dogs have been killed in the line of duty so far this year in the United States, one of them in Norfolk. Four of the deaths were the result of gunshots. Last year there were 26 police dogs killed while on duty.

Fauquier County trooper Jesse Lewis holds his patrol dog Ace as he wears his new ballistic vest during a news conference Friday at the New Market Fire Department. Rich Cooley/Daily

The loss of the highly trained dogs is more than an emotional blow for trainers and handlers who form tight bonds with the animals. Capt. Todd Taylor, commander of the state police Culpeper division, said many hours go into training the dogs to differentiate between threatening individuals and other humans who pose no danger.

“It takes a very special dog to do that,” Taylor said. “They don’t get that way overnight.”

The heads of the three businesses that paid for the vests – Holtzman Corp. of Mount Jackson, Luray Caverns and Buck Obsession, a nationally distributed TV show headquartered in Fauquier County – appeared Friday with the dogs.

“I think we should support our state and local police,” Bill Holtzman, president and owner of Holtzman Corp., said in a written statement provided by state police. “They do a great job and put their lives on the line everyday, which is why I like to support the vests for the dogs.”

The dogs have been wearing body armor for years, but the older version was two pounds heavier and could only be worn for short periods of time. The lighter weight and custom fit of the new body armor allows Ace and Baron, both German Shepherds, and Argo, a Belgian Malinois, to wear the vests throughout the day.

Argo, a state police patrol dog, wearing a new ballistic vest, runs during a training exercise on Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily

The vest is also designed with handles that let the trooper pick up the dog easily and lift him over fences, walls and other barriers.

“Just overall, it’s a great vest,” Waybright said. “It’s designed very well.”

The vest is made of a light mesh covering and Kevlar lining, the well-known synthetic fabric commonly used in body armor.

Baron, Ace and Argo looked content wearing the vests during several field exercises in which a state trooper wearing heavily padded clothing played the role of a suspect who quickly found a dog’s jaws clamped on to his sleeves or pant legs.

“I can’t tell you level of dedication it takes for these dogs to do what they do on a daily basis,” Taylor said, adding, “that’s why ballistic protection is so important.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

State trooper K-9 handler Adam Waybright sits with his patrol dog Argo as Argo waits for a command during a training exercise. Rich Cooley/Daily