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Pet Tales

Deputy ready to take bite out of crime

Wednesday, February 10, 1999

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Allegheny County's newest deputy sheriff posed solemnly and made eye contact with every photographer who attended his swearing-in ceremony yesterday.

Allegheny County deputy Sheriff Fran Willison smiles at his new partner Yago. The K-9 dog was trained to assist police in the apprehension of suspects. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

Deputy Yago - who uses no last name - licked the hands of people who stopped by to admire the new badge around his neck.

The German-born Yago is following in the paw prints of ancestors bred to guard and attack. But as the first member of the Allegheny County sheriff's office canine unit, Yago is more likely to gently apprehend fugitives, detect drug stashes and rescue children - with nary a bite.

The 2-year-old German shepherd is assigned to the Allegheny County fugitive squad. He's the newest weapon in Sheriff Peter R. DeFazio's crackdown on fleeing felons, "deadbeat dads" and others charged with criminal offenses.

DeFazio noted that in his first year as sheriff, there was a 640 percent increase in arrest warrants served.

"When I took office in January 1998, there were over 10,000 arrest warrants on the books. We cleared 5,863 in 1998, compared to 817 in 1997 and 693 in 1996," DeFazio said. "We cleared 1,666 warrants for family court - mostly men wanted for failing to pay alimony or child support."

Those arrests led to the collection of nearly $8 million in back alimony and child support, the sheriff said.

Yago's role in all of this is to accompany Deputy Fran Willison on his rounds. People eluding arrest and capture are generally not happy to hear Willison's knock on their door. They seldom resist arrest when confronted with the 92-pound black and tan dog.

"We expect Yago will decrease assaults on our officers," DeFazio said.

Though Yago is quiet, calm and actually friendly, he will attack on Willison's command. He is also trained to attack - without a command - if anyone tries to assault Willison.

"Yago is a very kind dog, but he would die to protect his handler," said Dean Balouris, a professional trainer who operates Covered Bridge Canine Center in West Newton.

Yago and Willison worked with Balouris for 10 weeks before reporting for duty in December. They will have ongoing training to sharpen their skills.

Yago has already tracked and apprehended two fugitives who were hiding in buildings.

"If they offer no resistance, Yago will just bark aggressively. If they try to flee or become aggressive, Yago will become as aggressive as he needs to be," Balouris said.

As a bonus, Yago is certified in drug detection.

"If he smells drugs on the person or the premises, we will file additional charges," DeFazio said.

The services of Yago and Willison will be made available to local police departments, he added.

Yago became a deputy in a rather unusual way. The $7,000 for his purchase and training was donated by Guardian Protection Services.

"This is a first for us," said Russell L. Cersosimo, president of the security systems company. Their firm does not train dogs or employ them in any way.

"By sponsoring the K-9 dog, we give law enforcement officers additional help in solving the drug problem and reducing crime."

DeFazio said he is meeting with local congressmen in an effort to obtain a federal grant for a second dog.

When Yago's eight-hour shift ends, he and Willison go home to Kennedy.

"We have two children, two other dogs and a cat. Yago is wonderful with all of them. He knows the difference between work and off-duty. He loves to play," Willison said.

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