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Buster (copy)

Buster, a Belgian Malinois breed, is the Gage County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit. The K-9 program may be ending at the department.

The Gage County Sheriff’s Office may retain its K-9 program, after all.

The fate of the program has been in doubt since last month when the deputy K-9 handler announced he was leaving the department, prompting lengthy debate regarding the future of the drug dog, Buster, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois.

Following the board’s initial discussion, it determined Buster had a value of $250, based largely on predictions the dog would be unable to perform to his current level under a different handler.

On June 5, the board voted to allow his handler, Coltin Bebensee, to purchase Buster. The $250 was anonymously donated, though County Attorney Roger Harris said a bill of sale was never completed.

Two weeks later the board voted to rescind its decision, saying they were misled to believe the dog has a lower value than it really does.

Buster was evaluated in Omaha last week, and Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson said during Monday morning’s county committee meetings that trainers estimated Buster’s dollar value to be at least $4,000, and said the dog appears able to work with a different handler.

“I’m here to tell you that I was taken aback by Buster, and so were the instructors,” Gustafson said. “They said they were pleasantly surprised with his performance for being a little rusty. They said his body composition, weight and everything looked really good. He had good obedience qualities.”

Trainers estimated Buster to have around four years of service life left for a law enforcement agency.

Another factor in the decision to rescind the offer to sell Buster was that the dog was purchased thanks in large part to donations, and donors weren’t contacted to get input on the sale. Some expressed disappointment and feelings that their donations were going to waste if the dog stopped working in Gage County.

Private donations accounted for more than $46,000 of the total cost of around $100,000, including training and equipment.

The board previously discussed that if the K-9 program ends and the dog is determined to have a value of at least $2,500, Buster should be declared surplus property by the county and sold to the highest bidder.

However, Gustafson said he’s now talking to a current deputy who may in interested in leading the K-9 unit.

“I have had two meetings with a deputy who has a strong interest in doing it,” Gustafson said. “We’re trying to work out details and might go back to Omaha with him… and get a feel of the training.”

Buster is currently in Gustafson’s care, and the sheriff stressed that the ongoing debate is not about Bebensee or keeping him separate from the dog. It’s about being responsible with county property.

“If we end up keeping (Buster), it’s nothing against him,” Gustafson said. “It’s just that donors gave money for that dog to be here and I think we owe it to the county if I have a deputy willing to step up and do it.”

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