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Zeus, protector of his partner and his community, set to retire

Sgt. Bryan Savaloja has worked with his K9 partner, Zeus, since the spring of 2010. Zeus will be retiring this year from duty with the Wadena County Sheriff's Office. Brian Hansel/Pioneer Journal1 / 2
Zeus received a red ball after carrying out a mock search for Savaloja - a standard reward for doing what his handler wants. Brian Hansel/Pioneer Journal2 / 2

A member of the Wadena County Sheriff's Office will be retiring in 2018, and while he does not know it yet, he is looking at some very nice compensation.

Zeus, a four-legged deputy with a lot of teeth, is due to hang up his badge sometime this summer. Since the spring of 2010, the German Shepherd has been the partner of Sgt. Bryan Savaloja. He has gone home with Savaloja each time the deputy sheriff has gone off duty and is a member of the Savaloja family. This will continue after his retirement. For a token fee, Savaloja is looking forward to becoming the sole owner of his loyal companion.

Savaloja was a new member of the department when he showed an interest in becoming the department's K9 handler. Zeus was shipped to Minnesota from the Czech Republic in Eastern Europe, where a certain breed is known for a special drive.

Savaloja and his big partner did most of their training together in Fridley, and the bond between the two was born at this time.

"The dog had very little training, so we learned together and he picked it up a lot faster than I did," Savaloja said. "The rest of it was just me learning the dog and his mannerisms and obviously him learning me at the same time."

Zeus and Savaloja have found individuals who are lost, tracked suspects, apprehended suspects and found narcotics in their years together. They have been called out for a lot of night duty but also plenty of daytime work.

Sheriff Mike Carr has often been impressed watching Savaloja and Zeus work together in a school setting when they are checking out lockers at the request of school administrators. It is at times like this that the two reveal how close their relationship is by the way they interact.

Savaloja has to get after Zeus from time to time, just like a parent has to get after one of their kids.

"It's fun the watch Bryan with that dog because Bryan knows when Zeus isn't doing a lot, Bryan sees the way he may be trying to cheat a little bit perhaps by trying to 'wind scent' something when Bryan wants his nose down in a locker," Carr said. "He'll tell the dog to knock it off."

Savaloja pointed out that all the training is reward-based, so when Zeus performs in a manner he approves of, he gets his reward—usually in the form of a toy.

"The reason we do that is to keep it fun for him," Savaloja said.

One of the reward toys is called a "kong", and the odd-shaped ball is very important to Zeus.

"His whole life is to find that kong... when he finds that kong he goes crazy over it," Carr said. "At the end of a search he finds something that he has to find Bryan will throw down that kong, and that is his reward."

Zeus is pushing 10 years old, and in a dog's years, that is when a deputy earns a rest. The need for a new dog became apparent to Carr and his deputies last May when Zeus started having some health issues.

"For a while, he was out of work. Bryan rested him for a little while," Carr said. "He doesn't have the drive he used to have. We all retire, and we want him to enjoy life outside of just going to work every day. If we can keep Zeus healthy we plan to hold onto him until the day we receive our current dog and then Zeus would retire."

Zeus is the only dog from his training class who is still on duty. His crime-fighting career has involved tracking scent, drug searches and apprehension of suspects.

"We were fortunate with Zeus," Carr said. "He's always been pretty healthy, and he's been a good dog for us."

A replacement for the veteran K9 is already on the way, and the Sheriff's Office received permission from the Wadena County Board of Commissioners Feb. 20 to begin collecting donations for the purchase of the new deputy.

"We're really going to be looking to the public to help us purchase the dog," Carr said.

The price tag that comes with a replacement K9 is between $16,000 and $18,000, but Carr finds it hard to calculate just how valuable a dog is in law enforcement work.

The Wadena County Sheriff's Office is not the only branch of law enforcement that benefits from having a trained police dog on the staff. Carr said other departments and other counties have asked for Zeus when they suspect his special powers can make the difference. Carr likes being able to lend a hand.

"We are going to help you, and we are going to assist you," Carr said.

Zeus has not only worked many night shifts without "growling" about it, but he has had a powerful public relations value. As popular as dogs are with kids, kids are just as popular with dogs.

"We use him in our schools," Carr said. "We don't use him necessarily to find drugs, we go in there as a public relations thing."

Zeus saves his greatest affection for Savaloja. He will literally give his life to protect his partner. When Savaloja is out of the squad dealing with a situation, his backup is very aware of it. Any hostility directed at Savaloja is guaranteed to upset Zeus.

"The biggest thing for me is that he's obviously always there," Savaloja said. "He doesn't really like it when I get out of the squad, so he is always watching me...he's always got an eye on me. If something starts going south, basically where he doesn't like it he'll start barking so whoever I am dealing with knows that he is there. The psychological deterrent is just as big in my book."

A new chapter in Savaloja's relationship with his partner will begin when Zeus is officially retired. Savaloja will be going from a night shift to a day shift, and Zeus will watch him come and go. Several of Carr's night shift deputies have already asked to become the department's new K9 handler. The relationship is a demanding one but a special one.

"It's a huge commitment," Carr said.

Individuals, businesses, groups and organizations wishing to donate funds for the new K9 officer are asked to call Carr or Savaloja at 631-7600.

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