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Zeus reigns supreme; Wadena K-9 is among 'top dogs'

Zeus, a German shepherd with the Wadena County Sheriff's Office, conducts a locker search Jan. 18. Zeus is trained in detection, tracking and criminal apprehension. Photo by Zach Kayser, Pioneer Journal

For the past two and a half years, a German Shepherd named Zeus has assisted the Wadena County Sheriff's Office with drug detection, tracking and criminal apprehension. Sheriff Mike Carr said Zeus graduated near the head of his class, calling him "one of the top dogs at that school as far as I'm concerned."

Carr recalled a case where Zeus tracked a fleeing suspect near Menahga through more than a mile of woods, abandoning the chase only when the criminal got into a car and drove off.

Zeus is much like his namesake. His rippling muscles are easily visible beneath his thick winter fur. Unconcerned with the whims of mere mortals, Zeus will brush off any attempt to pet him. He will, however, go crazy for his Kong chew toy.

Zeus is also utterly devoted to the man behind the chew toy, Deputy Bryan Savaloja. Savaloja is his handler, and when Zeus is off duty, he stays at Savaloja's home like any other pet. When Zeus retires, Savaloja will likely keep him for good.

"I can't imagine that I would ever give him up," Savaloja said. "He's been my partner every day. He's with me every day."

Savaloja has been with Zeus ever since he came to Wadena County from the Czech Republic. Carr said more and more police dogs nowadays are actually Czech because dogs that are bred there have more drive and avoid the health problems typical of American-bred German Shepherds, such as bad hips. Some American police departments will even give commands in Czech, Carr said.

When Zeus came to America, he had only minimal training in obedience. Zeus and Savaloja attended the same 13 weeks of classes to learn K-9 unit police work, but Savaloja said it was he himself who had the most to learn.

"I basically just follow the dog's lead," Savaloja said.

Zeus and Savaloja were certified in 2010 the same day a devastating tornado came through Wadena. Since then, it's been a variety of challenges and rewards for the pair.

"There is no typical call with him," Savaloja said. "One day it could be a missing child out in the woods, or it could be an armed suspect we're tracking ..."

Carr said the typical tour of duty for a police dog is 8-10 years. Zeus turned 4 in September, meaning he has 4-5 years left before he retires, Savaloja said. He trains Zeus every day, so the dog can maintain constant readiness for the next challenge he might be thrown up against.

Although Zeus has a tough and dangerous career ahead of him, the community has taken it upon themselves to make sure he is protected in the years ahead. Carr said the department has recently received enough donations to equip Zeus with a bulletproof vest, to be fitted sometime in the next month.

"(Police) dogs go into harm's way all the time - they're no different than us - so it's nice to protect your dog," Carr said.