BYRON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — For Kent County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jeff Whelan, every patrol comes with a common set of sounds: the crack of the radio, the patrol car’s wheels against the road surface and the panting of his partner, Blu.
“I, legit, have the best gig at my place,” Whelan said. “There’s no question about it.”
Blu is a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois-German shepherd mix. He and Whelan have a bond no human patrol partners can match.
“You can’t be shy about having fur all over you or because your new cologne is wet dog. You can’t be shy about any of that,” Whelan said. “It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done, because you’re working with an animal and you’ve got to figure out his way of learning things. But it’s also the most rewarding when you get to see the outcome and get to see what they can actually do out here. “
The pair spend each patrol shift together, then Blu goes home with Whelan to be part of the family. The bond is string. The worries, too, so the crash involving a Grand Rapids police dog hit close to home.
Grand Rapids Police Department Officer Teddy VanVliet and K-9 Dozer were responding, lights and sirens, to a break-in call around 3 a.m. Friday when an SUV estimated to be going at least 75 mph and hit the patrol vehicle at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Hall Street SE. VanVliet was trapped in the cruiser but uninjured.
Dozer suffered a severe spinal injury that paralyzed his hind legs. He was rushed to an animal hospital north of Grand Rapids, then transferred to one in Farmington Hills to see a neurology specialist.
In a post on Facebook Monday, GRPD said Dozer’s prognosis was positive: His spinal cord was not severed and he will likely walk again. He has already shown some improvement in his left hind leg.
“We don’t yet know if he will regain full function in his legs – only time will tell,” GRPD’s post read in part.
Blu’s safety is a constant concern for Whelan.
“Every time I get him out, (I wonder), is this going to be the one? Or every time we’re driving down the road: Is this the one?” Whelan said.
While the relationship between dog and deputy is obvious, there’s also a strong relationship between human handlers. That was apparent early Friday morning.
“For the second time that I’ve been to the animal hospital for something like this, other K-9 officers from throughout the county started showing up to support,” GRPD Chief Eric Winstrom said during a Friday news conference, referencing the stabbing of a different dog last year.
That dog, Eli, went back to work earlier this year.
The bond between K-9 handlers is often on public display. When Kent County K-9 Axel died from a medical complication in August 2021, police K-9 officers from all over formed a procession.
When Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Officer Christian Smith, a K-9 handler, battled leukemia last fall, Whelan organized a gathering of police officers, firefighters, and other first responders who gathered outside Smith’s Grand Rapids hospital, their emergency lights flashing, in a show of support for him. Smith ultimately died; he was 32.
“We train with other agencies, so you just kind of get to know them, kind of know their dogs, kind of know them personally,” Whelan said. “It’s just a small community. And when you have that type of thing, you’re there for one another.”
Police are still looking for the driver and four occupants of the SUV that hit VanVliet’s cruiser. Witnesses saw them take off in an early 2010s Nissan Altima that arrived on scene immediately following the crash.
Anyone with information is asked to call the GRPD Traffic Unit at 616.456.3771 or 616.456.4282, or Silent Observer at 616.774.2345.