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Holly Springs K-9 recovers from rare infection

Officer Daniel Kozik discusses Storm’s surgery with Dr. Elaine Holmes, a surgeon at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas in Cary. Doctors at the vet hospital think the police dog will be able to get back to work soon.
Officer Daniel Kozik discusses Storm’s surgery with Dr. Elaine Holmes, a surgeon at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas in Cary. Doctors at the vet hospital think the police dog will be able to get back to work soon. mwildeman@newsobserver.com

Storm, a 3½-year-old police dog with the Holly Springs Police Department, wants nothing more than to go back to work after being out for about a month.

That time will come within a few weeks. Storm had surgery in late June to remove a potentially life-threatening fungal infection from his belly. Now, the K-9 is in recovery.

For the Holly Springs Police Department, Storm represents not only a significant investment but an integral part of the police force.

Soon, the department will have five police dogs on its force, one of the most robust K-9 programs in the area.

Sgt. Chris Poston, who is in charge of the K-9 unit, said Storm is an intense, intelligent animal who, like the other dogs on the force, wants nothing more than to have a job.

“I love that little pup to death,” Poston said. “He’s just a ball of fire.”

Officer Daniel Kozik, Storm’s handler, was the first to notice a small spot the size of a quarter on Storm’s belly. Antibiotic treatment from a veterinarian in Holly Springs wasn’t working, and the spot progressively got worse.

Finally, the vet took a biopsy and sent the results to the Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas in Cary. There, Dr. Rae Hutchins diagnosed Storm with cutaneous zygomycosis, a rare fungal infection.

Hutchins said she had never seen a case in her career. The infection tends to affect police and working dogs more frequently than others, Hutchins said, probably because they are so often exposed to the environment.

Dr. Elaine Holmes, one of the hospital’s surgeons, removed the infection on June 30. Since then, Storm has recovered comfortably.

The hospital treats working dogs often, Hutchins said. In general, they can be a challenge to work with. But Storm has warmed up to the hospital staff.

“He’s got a really good personality,” Hutchins said. “He gets excited about his visits to come here now, which I think is really sweet.”

Handling a K-9

Kozik, who has been with the Holly Springs Police Department since May 2012, said he spends more time with Storm than he does with his wife. Storm has been living with Kozik, his wife, and their two other dogs for about a year since his training for the K-9 unit began. By now, the Belgian Malinois has become a part of Kozik’s family.

“Emotionally, he’s like a pet to me,” Kozik said.

Kozik said he always knew he wanted to work with a police dog. His aunt was a K-9 handler for the Fayetteville Police Department. Officers have to go through an application process before getting a K-9 partner. Then, there’s a four-month training course for both the officer and the dog.

For Kozik, the work has paid off.

“It’s the best job in the police department,” Kozik said.

Some dogs will work for the praise, Kozik said, but Storm works for the reward. He has a hard head and a strong will, but Kozik knows those qualities make for the best police dogs.

“He tests me all the time,” Kozik said. “But I’m very lucky to have him.”

The K-9 unit

The price tag for Storm’s surgery was staggering, Poston said. It stung, especially because Storm is young. The canine only has been on the force for about a year and a half. The department has had health issues with its K-9s before, but nothing this intensive or expensive, Poston said.

Storm and the four other dogs on Holly Springs’ K-9 unit — Justice, Blaze, Cody and Oz — are expected to work every day. Their jobs range from drug hunts to missing-person searches. If a K-9 indicates that they smell drugs inside a car, for example, the officer will have probable cause to search the car.

Poston said the department has heard people charged with drug crimes say they purposefully avoid Holly Springs because of the size of the K-9 unit. The department has been lucky that the town supports the police dog program, Poston said. It is unusual for a town like Holly Springs, which a population of 30,000, to have five K-9s. Cary, with a population of 155,000, has three. Raleigh has 11.

The first Holly Springs police dog started working in 2005. Poston said the department has had a goal of having five K-9s for about three years. With five dogs on the force, every shift at the department is covered, which Poston said is ideal. The initial cost of a K-9 with minimal prior training is about $7,000, but after that, Poston said they usually cost little.

“They work for dog food and a rubber ball,” Poston said.

Kozik uses a mixture of German and Dutch commands. That’s Storm’s native language; he was born in Europe. German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois, the two breeds most police departments use, are exceptionally smart dogs.

Poston described German Shepherds as a luxury sedan, built for a casual pace. Comparatively, Belgian Malinois are like a Corvette, he said — high-speed and harder to drive.

But Storm has proven himself useful to the department. On one occasion, an officer was trying to stop a speeding car. The car wrecked, and the driver darted. Within 20 minutes, Storm tracked the man to his house, where he was standing in the driveway.

For the five dogs on the force, training won’t end until they retire. They’re required to be re-certified every year, and they undergo at least 16 hours of formal training per month, not including all the time handlers invest in their partners outside of training.

“It’s truly a lifestyle,” Poston said. “It’s one of the biggest commitments you can have within the police department.”

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