The Sunbury Police Department's newest employee is the youngest in the office and never does paperwork, but he's already the most popular officer in the building.

His name is Ace, and he's also (likely) the furriest member of the Sunbury police force.

In November, the 1-year-old Belgian Malinois became the village's first K-9 unit in more than 15 years, said police Chief Rob Howard.

Howard is a former K-9 unit officer. He said bringing a dog back to the station was one of his first wishes when he took over the role of chief last year.

"I can't believe we went as long as we did without one," he said.

Howard said he heard from a number of local groups that were interested in donating funds to help pay for the dog, and when Howard told them he was interested, it wasn't long before the funding came as promised.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8736 provided $5,000, the largest donation to the cause. The Sunbury Chiropractic Center, the Ohio State Eagles and Sunbury Village Council member Tim Gose each provided $1,000.

Howard said acquiring and training Ace cost at least $7,000, meaning the donations were crucial.

Ace was trained by Gerard Azzi, the owner and trainer at Azzi International Service for Dogs in Delaware County. During the training, Howard and Azzi took three potential officers to visit Ace and see which spurred the best response.

From that first meeting, officer Mark Mead was a clear match.

"He seemed to take to me pretty quick," Mead recalled.

But that was just where Mead's training began. He had never been part of a K-9 unit before, and while Ace was "already probably 80 percent trained," Mead had to learn the ropes.

"He was probably ahead of us," he said. "We were trying to catch up to where he was at. And it's still an ongoing process. It's a lot to pick up real quick."

Mead and Ace started six weeks of a training program in September, then received state certification and began their regular schedule Nov. 13.

Now, the pair will be used in a variety of situations in Sunbury. From runaway children to searching vehicles for drugs, Ace will speed up the process and help save officers' time.

"There were times we'd call for a K-9 and there just wasn't one available," Howard said. "We've had dogs all the way up from Hilliard to help us. ... Say you have a kid wander off, or an elderly person. The longer you wait, the worse it is. Having our own K-9 -- and Mark lives in town -- he's minutes away."

Ace, who just celebrated his first birthday in October, is energetic. Aside from modifying his police cruiser to accommodate his new partner, Mead said it's been an adjustment to keep an eye on him all day.

"It's like riding along with a 2-year-old sometimes," Mead said with a laugh. "You always have to be cognizant of what they're doing, and you have to keep them happy, too. So it turns into a lot of care work to be sure the dog is in a happy environment while he's working."

One of the best ways to keep Ace engaged is to keep him working, and Mead said he's never short of ideas on how to use his new partner.

"I even use him during our downtime," he said. "I'll go up to the schools and the parks and walk him through the playgrounds to be sure there aren't any needles or stuff like that left out there. So even in downtime, he's actually doing something."

At home, Ace is one of Mead's three dogs, and loves to spend time with Sugar, a St. Bernard, and Spike, a boxer. Mead said the trio are "really chummy," and when Ace is off the clock, he's not too different from any other dog.

"I treat him like a family member," Mead said.

While Mead and Ace continue to bond, the department keeps finding new ways to use the duo. Howard said he's shooting for flexibility and hopes the position can evolve as Mead discovers the best approaches with Ace.

"With it being a new program, we're going to rely on Officer Mead some to see if there are times we think we need to change," Howard said. "We're going to be pretty open with him and let him kind of float around and find where his highest call levels are going to be and where he'll be best utilized."

Partly because of its name, Sunbury's Ace Hardware, 300 W. Granville St., soon will host a meet-and-greet event with Ace -- whom Howard and Mead both described as "very sociable."

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