May 06. 2013 9:50PM

New gear protects Manchester police dogs facing dangerous situations

New Hampshire Union Leader

Manchester Police Officer Jacob Tyler, left, gives direction to his dog Bud, 6, with his new vest on, while he attacks Officer Scott Ardita, as nine K-9 police dogs receive new bullet-proof vests, in Manchester, on Tuesday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER -- Eight city police dogs are being outfitted with bullet-proof vests thanks to a charitable organization devoted to protecting police dogs around the country.

Vested Interest in K9s, a Taunton, Mass.-based group, recently presented body armor for the Manchester police dogs, plus a canine assigned to the Freedom Police Department, to the police members of the K-9 unit.

Officer Scott Ardita, who has worked on the unit for the past several years, noted that Manchester police dogs are on duty for much of the day, especially on night shifts where they will track suspected criminals, enter in situations too dangerous for a person and protect their handlers against attacks.

Before they hit the streets with the dogs, the police handlers go through 14 weeks of training, so the members of the city K-9 unit can protect the animals that often protect them.

"You develop a bond with your dog; it's something you can't put your finger on," Ardita said. "Your dog knows you, your dog knows your emotions, your dog knows if you're scared, your dog knows if you're angry."

The vests cost about $1,030 each, and will defend a dog against most bullet and knife attacks.

Four of the vests were purchased with a $5,000 contribution from Marcus and Summer Stern of Cambridge, Mass.

"We love dogs," Summer Stern said. "We love the opportunity to protect the canines as much as their human counterparts are protected. They're in battle, they're fighting, it doesn't seem fair for them not to have the same protection."

As Manchester canine officers led their four-legged companions on a demonstration of how the dogs were used, the Sterns noted that it was the first time they had seen the dogs they support in action.

"It's amazing," Summer said as German shepherds followed the voice commands of their police patrol handlers, responding immediately to voice command and reacting instinctively to scenarios simulating those they had been trained to confront.

The effort to provide protective gear to police dogs is spearheaded by Sandy Marcal of East Taunton, Mass., who said she got the idea while watching an Animal Planet program on K-9 patrols.

Vested Interest provided 66 of the vests to police departments around the country last year.

This year, 217 protective vests are being donated as the result of fundraising efforts through the Daily Deals website and a grant from a California pet insurance company.

"This is strictly to protect the four-legged canine heroes," Marcal said.

City Police Chief David Mara said the police dogs are a valuable part of the department.

Mara cited a case a couple of years ago when an elderly woman got lost in the woods and was found when a search dog led rescuers to her after she had been out all night. The police chief said that having a police dog who could pick up the woman's scent and find her saved the woman's life.

The role of the dogs is not limited to searching for people or contraband.

"If somebody is inside a building, instead of sending a police officer in there who could get hurt, we'll send the dog in and they'll come out," Mara said. "They help us a lot."