In August 2016, a 23-year-old fugitive wanted in connection with a shooting in Yakima slipped a police pursuit near Lapwai and headed toward the Camas Prairie.

Officers from the Nez Perce Tribe, Nez Perce County and the Idaho State Police chased Kevin Zyph, driving a red Dodge Stealth, southbound on U.S. Highway 95 and at one point laid a spike strip across the highway.

Zyph apparently spotted the trap and diverted to another road leading to Nezperce.

Lewis County Sheriff Jason Davis said he joined the chase as soon as Zyph came into view. Riding in the back of the patrol vehicle was Davis’s partner, K9 Bajo, a 6-year-old black German shepherd who had trained for situations such as this.

“We engaged in the pursuit on Highway 95 almost all the way to Nezperce,” Davis recalled. “Unfortunately (Zyph) drove out in one of our fields — we’re pretty rural. So I’m pursuing and I hit a rock and it blows my front right tire out. So we’re dead in the water; we’re stuck right there.”

Davis got out of his vehicle and waved on the other officers, indicating he could go no farther.

Zyph continued through the wheat fields for about another quarter of a mile before crashing his vehicle, then bolting from the car and fleeing on foot.

“So on my portable I start hearing: ‘We need you and your dog,’ ” Davis said. “So we’re running through this field and rocks and everything and (Bajo) says, ‘Hey, this is a great game. I love this. Let’s go.’ ”

Finally they approached the area where Zyph was crouched down in the wheat field. Davis said he called out warnings: “Hey, come out now or I’m going to send my dog and he’s going to find you, and he’s going to bite you.”

When Zyph still refused to surrender, Davis gave the command for Bajo to track him down.

“All I could see was his tail,” the sheriff said. “But I could tell by the actions of his tail that he was ‘in odor’ (meaning Bajo had picked up Zyph’s scent) because it would go rapid and then decrease and then go rapid. He comes back to tell me, ‘Hey, Dad, I know where he’s at.’ I said: ‘Well, go get him.’

“About 10 seconds later I just heard a scream. And (Bajo) had found the suspect, and he and the suspect came face-to-face because the suspect was laying down in the wheat, and Bajo came downwind of him and came up. And so I can only imagine the look on the suspect’s eyes when all of a sudden he’s laying down and here is this dog face-to-face. And so I hear the scream and ‘Get your dog off me.’ And we ended up taking the suspect into custody.”

Bajo did bite Zyph, Davis said.

“As a handler, he proved many things that day. He knew what to do; he knew how to do his job. The training paid off. We took a very dangerous suspect that led all of us on a multicounty pursuit, took him into custody and got him off the streets.”

Davis said Zyph was returned to Washington and is now serving a prison sentence of 10 to 15 years for attempted murder.

They have a ‘light switch’

Bajo, the K9 who has intercepted drug dealers, searched for lost hunters, tracked escaped inmates and apprehended dangerous criminals is hanging up his badge — so to speak — and entering a life of retirement, presumably with Davis and his family.

“He’s showing me his lack of desire to actually do the job,” Davis said during a recent sit-down with the Lewiston Tribune.

“There comes a point in animals, and with any person, where you get to that point where it’s time to retire. He’s not as quick to jump in the car as he used to. His mobility is becoming diminished. In years past, he was active all the time. He was go-go-go. He was dropping toys in my lap until I was just sick. And now he sleeps a lot during the day. His age is catching up to him.”

Bajo, who is the third law enforcement-trained K9 owned by Lewis County, was acquired in June 2012. K9 Bruno was the agency’s first dog, bought in about 2004. Bruno later was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, characterized by progressive anemia, low blood pressure and weakness. He was treated for a while and then euthanized.

Bruno was replaced by K9 X — Davis said X’s real name was too hard to pronounce so he just went by the letter — who also had to be put down later because of health problems.

The Idaho Counties Risk Management Program that insures counties considers K9s a law enforcement tool, so it reimbursed Lewis County for the replacement of K9 X.

Davis, by that time, had become the department’s main dog handler. In June 2012, he drove with another officer from Kootenai County to Riverside, Calif., to pick out a dog. The moment they found Bajo they knew immediately he was their dog.

“We saw Bajo, and we tested him, and he tested phenomenal, and we said, `Well, we’re taking him,’ ” Davis said.

The average purchase price of a dog of K9 Bajo’s stature is $8,000 to $10,000.

Bajo, as well as Bruno before him, had been bred and raised in the Czech Republic where there is a big industry for police dogs.

“There are a lot of breeders overseas and great bloodlines, proven bloodlines,” Davis said. “When you’re looking at patrol apprehension, which is a very serious discipline because of the fact that, `I am deploying my dog to come find you and potentially bite you,’ the stakes are raised a lot higher because of the liability.

“Certain breeds do well at certain disciplines. And shepherds, as we’ve learned through the years at Lewis County, have kind of that light switch. It’s a switch that I can turn on and off with him. Right now he’s loving, but if I were to give him a certain command his attitude would change dramatically.”

When Bajo is not working, he’s a gentle member of Davis’s family that includes two other dogs, Labrador retrievers.

“He lounges around the house; he plays with his toys, … but if I was in a fight for my life he’d be right there with me. He is very loyal and very devoted.”

Intense training

After bringing Bajo back to Lewis County and introducing him to the staff, Davis took his dog back to Riverside for an intense two-week training seminar.

That involved teaching Bajo to recognize the distinctions between different narcotics, how to apprehend a subject and how to track lost individuals.

Besides the initial training in California, Bajo and Davis were required by the state of Idaho to spend 16 hours every 15 months on each of Bajo’s disciplines.

Davis said because Bajo was raised in the Czech Republic he had to learn Czech commands.

“It’s intense — a lot of intense training and repetition, repetition, repetition,” Davis said. “But you have to understand, with K9s, they love doing this. For them, there are certain inalienable drives in these breeds, and it’s a game for them.

“Like Bajo, he likes to win, and he’s won on many, many occasions. It’s been said about handlers like myself that we’re nothing more than the dummy at the end of the leash. Because the dog knows what to do. All we have to do is be able to articulate what that dog is doing and why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

In addition to recognizing scents, Bajo also understands the type of work he’s expected to do by the gear Davis puts on him. For narcotics detection it’s a simple chain collar, and when Davis gives commands they’re in a happy, upbeat voice.

For suspect apprehension, Davis’s verbal tone becomes more serious. Bajo is dressed for such pursuits in a more business-like harness.

To illustrate how Bajo’s olfactory senses work, Davis uses the image of coming into a kitchen and smelling that somebody is baking a cake. To a human, the fragrance is pleasant.

Dogs are able to discern the different ingredients.

“Bajo smells the flour and sugar and oil and eggs. He has the ability to take that odor and break it apart and smell each component of that odor. And he smells it faster than we do and long before we ever smell it because his olfactory is at a higher sensitivity level.

“He’s proven that over and over. When cover odors are placed on narcotics — people use lemon or pepper or coffee or place it inside other food items — (the dogs) are still able to locate the odor of the narcotics, even when cover odors are around.”

Although Bajo is Lewis County property, he is supported entirely through donations. Davis said there have been generous benefactors through the years funding the upkeep of the department’s K9s, including a 4-H club in Kamiah. When Davis and one of his dogs visited the school in Kamiah some years back, the students wanted to know if the dog had a ballistic bulletproof vest.

Davis told them no, the county couldn’t afford it. So the 4-H club members put together a fundraiser and collected enough funds to buy a vest — an investment of several thousand dollars.

Although the Lewis County K9 unit has been widely used by other law enforcement agencies, Davis said he’s never charged for that service.

“We have always done this as a `You scratch my back; I’ll scratch your back.’ I’m a firm believer in that. Regionally, we depend on each other’s agencies a lot. I may lend a favor to Nez Perce County, but they lend me a favor on down the road.

“So this is a common courtesy, and as far as we’re concerned what happens in Lewiston or Nez Perce County can greatly affect what happens here in Lewis County. Because, after all, we’re the only north-south highway (in Idaho), and it comes right through our county.”

After Bajo’s retirement, the county’s K9 unit will transfer to Kamiah Deputy Mark Pagliano who has been training with Raptor, a 3 1/2-year-old Belgian Malinois. It’s a breed favored by law enforcement agencies that Davis describes as a “German shepherd on crack.”

Bonds forged

Law enforcement officers frequently testify to the bonds they forge with their partners, and it’s no different between Davis and Bajo.

Choking back emotion, Davis admitted that it will be hard to see this beloved dog retire. Because it also means retirement for the sheriff as a K9 handler, although he will continue to be an instructor.

“It’s the end of a very amazing pinnacle of my life,” Davis said. Bajo “signified the end of something that I love. And his retirement, which is well deserved, for him means that that’s an area that we don’t go back to. We go forward, and we try to help in other ways that we can and, just like him, I’m not getting any younger.

“It also means that here, soon, it’s the end of his road. Because all good things must come to an end. And so, yeah, he’s not only my partner, but he’s been a great friend. He is someone that I can tell him every problem I’ve got in the world, and he never says anything back negative.

“It’s an amazing field. I’m going to miss him.”

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.