If you’re jogging on North Campus on a Saturday, do not be surprised if you’re approached by a man and his dog.
It could be Joseph Dunny and Columbo, one-half of the university’s two K-9 patrol officer units within the Division of Public Safety and Security, and Dunny is just looking for your assistance training the department’s newest officer.
“A lot of times I’ll see someone running on North Campus on Saturdays and ask them, ‘Can you take this tug toy and just keep running and drop it after a couple hundred yards and I’ll get the dog out and track?’” Dunny said.
The request is rarely turned down, and that’s by design.
Dunny, who has been with DPSS since 1998 and with the K-9 unit since 2010, takes great pride in how social the animals are he works with and how effective they are at their important roles.
Columbo and Riggs — like Tank and Nike before them — come from a Belgian Malinois breeder in Kentucky who keeps the dogs for one year before turning them over to DPSS for service. During that first year, the dogs are taken out in public to socialize them while they also work through the puppy months before getting down to the serious business of tracking, patrolling and searching for explosives.
“What we’ve produced is a friendly police dog that can be petted and do the other things. If you start the other things first, they become distrustful of people and don’t want to be pet,” Dunny said. “We’ve had them at all kinds of events, and they’ve done more for community outreach than anything we have in the department.”
Dunny has been around dogs since his childhood and involved with public service for practically the entirety of his career. But he says being a dog lover is not a prerequisite for working the K-9 unit. In fact, it’s a detriment.
“You can’t be one of these people who dresses their pet up,” he said. “This is not a pet, this is a tool. It’s a very serious job when working with a dog, but it’s the most rewarding job in law enforcement, in my opinion.”
Dunny served both his hometown Manchester Fire Department and the Pittsfield Township Fire Department after taking law enforcement classes at Washtenaw Community College. He also worked for Huron Valley Ambulance to help hone his medical skills as an emergency medical technician and paramedic.
He came to U-M in 1998 and worked in housing security until going through the police academy to become a certified police officer in the mid-2000s. In 2010, he moved to the K-9 unit, taking over Taser from a previous handler until her retirement in 2014.
“That’s when Tank came on,” he said. “In 2021, he retired out in the fall. That was hard. That was a dog that I took from not knowing anything.”
Training is an arduous process, but Tank proved to be a quick learner and ideal partner.
Dunny said the K-9 dogs through DPSS are not narcotics dogs, which have to distinguish between only three scents. They’re explosive-detection dogs, which require them to learn 21 different odors, and then some. They can also track criminals, track and find missing people and are trained in evidence article search.
“If you took a quarter and threw it out in the middle of Michigan Stadium, the dog will find it,” Dunny said. “They’re amazing animals.”
Tank proved to be exceptional. He was first place in explosive detection in United States Police Canine Association Region 19, which encompasses Michigan, northern Ohio and Canada. Dunny said he has an entire area of his home stocked with trophies that Tank won over the years.
Most of those came in recent years, as Dunny said Tank went from “going 100 miles an hour” on tracking to slowing down and “finding people left and right.” Dunny said having the ability to train Tank from the start was critical for both parties.
“The bonding experience when you train a dog yourself becomes much better, also your ability to read your dog’s behavior,” he said. “Your ability is much greater because you’ve seen them learn from nothing into what they become.”
Tank’s retirement to the Dunny home was a difficult transition at first, with Dunny leaving for work with Columbo, and Tank not eager to stay. That is also by design to a point, since the dogs are trained to be excited for work and consider home to be “boring.”
“For eight years, Tank went to work with me every day,” Dunny said. “(On Columbo’s first day), Tank was waiting by the door, like, ‘Why is this guy going with you?’ But the new dog is exceeding where Tank was.”
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Columbo and Tank are two of only eight dogs to have served the K-9 unit at DPSS since its launch in 2002. Riggs is currently in service with Officer Susan Upton as his handler.
When Tank retired, he was around 55 pounds; at only a year and a half, Columbo tips the scales at 80 pounds.
“He’s tall and athletic,” Dunny said. “They’re very athletic dogs. I always say, if a normal dog is a high school linebacker, and a professional linebacker is a German shepherd, our dogs are Lawrence Taylor.”
Columbo is Dunny’s third dog with DPSS, and when Columbo retires, Dunny plans to as well. He’s looking forward to taking his wife, who is a flight nurse for Survival Flight, two teenage boys and silver lab named Hope — along with Tank and Columbo — on camping trips.
“I hate to retire from it, but you start getting up in age, and it starts to wear on your body,” he said. “It’s not easy working a dog all the time. When they’re connected to you on a line and you’re doing a track and they’re going 15-20 mph, they’re pulling you and you don’t have a choice but to go.”