BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Officer Neeko demonstrated Tuesday how a new bite suit holds up to continue his training in apprehending potential suspects on command.

During a training session outside the Sheriff’s Office in Blountville, the 7-year-old Belgian Malinois listened to his handler, K-9 Unit Sgt. Kris Thomas, and, within seconds, took down K-9 Officer Andrew Walden, who played the role of a suspect by donning the big orange suit.

The $1,800 suit was paid for by Food City in honor of fallen Sgt. Steve Hinkle, who was killed in the line of duty in February.

Thomas got Neeko out of his cruiser and shouted to Walden, who was sitting inside a vehicle, “Sheriff’s Office K-9! Get out of the car! Sheriff’s Office K-9! Get out of the car with your hands up!”

Walden got out of the car and acted like he was fleeing. Before turning Neeko loose, Thomas shouted, “Turn around! Stop! You’re going to get bit!”

When he was let go, Neeko bolted toward Walden and latched onto his left forearm, keeping his grip despite being slung around in circles. Within seconds, he had Walden pinned, face down on the pavement, and he didn’t let go until Thomas told him to.

During the takedown, Walden shouted to mimic being in pain, but when asked afterward if it was an act, he said no because it was painful.

“He did what he was supposed to do at the end of the day, so, I mean, I was happy with it,” Walden said, adding that the new suit is much better than the old one. “I can actually feel his full bite.”

Obviously, Neeko takes his job seriously because, even after he was commanded to stop, he looked around a couple times as if searching for the suspect before taking a break.

“The dog is getting trained, but it’s also training us, too, because we’ve got to work off of our cues of our dog,” Thomas said. “If we’re doing a track, and we get close to him [suspect], you’ll see the dog’s ears go up, he’ll stiffen up, tail goes up, then you’ll know you’re close. His head will come up off the ground, and he’ll start wind-scenting instead of tracking down on the ground, so it helps us training all the time to read the cues of our dogs.”

Neeko is trained to search for, track and apprehend suspects, as well as to find drugs.

The scenario was similar to a recent call Walden and his dog, K-9 Officer Drako, responded to in the Sullivan Gardens area of the county, he said.

The material of the new suit is much thinner than the retired suit used for training for nine years, but Walden and Thomas said that’s a good thing because it means better training for the dogs and handlers. There was some blood on the suit from Neeko’s gums after the training. That’s normal until the material is worn in some, and it strengthens the dogs’ gums, Thomas said.

“It’s kind of like wearing a winter sports coat,” he said. “It’s all about the decoy and the dog. If the decoy can’t feel the dog come in and punch, your dog’s going to not have a good bite, and the pressure that he can feel, he’ll actually have bruises on the arm that he caught the dog on.”

The suit is University of Tennessee orange with white stripes down the legs and arms. Printed on the back of the suit in all capital letters is “Hinkle,” and his badge number, 1741, is printed on the side of the left leg.

Sheriff Jeff Cassidy said he and his department are thankful for the donation and for Food City’s dedication to helping law enforcement and the community.

“We rely a lot on donations and grants and stuff for certain equipment because most of our budget goes to mandatory [costs] — cars, fuel, the jail, inmates’ health care, food, water and shelter,” he said.

But Food City Security Director Daniel Sluss, who watched the demonstration with other Food City employees, said the goal of the donation was about honoring Hinkle. After his death, they asked what they could do, and Cassidy said they needed a new bite suit, so they donated the money.

“In light of the tragedy and what happened, we observed everything, and it really pulled on our heartstrings,” Sluss said. “We’re big in the community. We strive to help and involve the community, and a big part of that is first responders, whether it’s EMS [emergency medical services], fire or your local sheriff’s office or PD [police department], and we just really felt we want to do something in the honor of Sgt. Hinkle.”

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lspell@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2511 | Twitter: @BHC_Lurah | Facebook.com/lurah.lowery

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