The police department's K-9 unit competed in the United States Police Canine Association's national field trials in Punta Gorda this weekend — something that wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of a local Eagle Scout.
Ben Schulte and Plant City Boy Scout Troop 5 designed an obstacle course where officers can train their dogs. It's the first time the Plant City Police Department has had its own course and allows officers to spend more time working with their dogs.
"This training is rigorous, and dogs are cross-trained and tested for patrol and narcotic detection including tracking, building and area searches, evidence recovery and handler protection," said John Stasiak, the four-man K-9 unit's senior officer.
Schulte, 16, designed the obstacle course as his Eagle Scout project a community service effort a Boy Scout must undertake as a capstone to his pursuit of the Eagle Scout rank, the pinnacle of achievement for a Scout.
He asked Plant City Manager Gregory Horwedel and Police Chief Bill McDaniel for an undertaking that would also honor the law enforcement service of his grandfather and other family members who worked in the Plant City Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
McDaniel told him the police department needed a new dog run with a working obstacle course built to train its dogs for certification. The United States Canine Association requires 480 hours of training for both the handler and dog, who then have to pass a standards test administered by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The police department had done some of the legwork already and provided Schulte with blueprints and a $6,000 budget. Lowe's chipped in with tools, building and painting supplies; and Schulte recruited 30 members from his Scout troop to help him build the course. They designed the course last October and had it built by early November.
"With all the help I had, we were able to accomplish the building and painting in about 13 hours of hard work," said Schulte, a senior at Plant City High School who hopes to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.
The Scouts built 12 obstacles, including five hurdles, four broad jumps, two low crawl space trainers, an A-frame and a catwalk. The catwalk is of particular importance and is one of the most difficult obstacles for the dogs to master; it teaches the dog to climb a ladder and maintain a fixed position on a narrow plank while elevated 6 feet above the ground.
The officers in the K-9 unit work with their four dogs every day; that wasn't possible when they had to train the dogs in Lakeland. Now, with regular coaching, the dogs and trainers are improving and are able to compete again — for the first time in several years.
"These dogs are invaluable," Stasiak said. "They live with us and work with us. They take some of the risk away from the more dangerous police work. I'm getting too old to chase guys down a street. With their speed and agility, dogs can do a lot better than we can. You can see why it is so important to be able to have a place to train them right here in Plant City, instead of going to Lakeland as we previously had to do."