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wags - Pennies to Protect

  By: A.J. Mistretta

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Pennies to Protect Police Dogs

A police dog is trained to restrain by "biting and holding," meaning the dog will clamp its jaws on a suspect and hold with his full body weight until given the release command.

Stacey Hillman exhibits the same tenacity. When the 13-year-old gets it into her head to accomplish something, she holds on and gives it everything she's got.

At the age of 9, Stacey read a magazine article about a police dog, which had been shot and killed in the line of duty. She couldn't understand why canine police officers didn't have the same protection as their human counterparts and made it her personal mission to provide bullet- and knife-proof vests for every working police dog.

Pennies to Protect Police Dogs, the charity founded by the tenacious pre-teen, is responsible for vesting more than 330 police dogs in her home-state of Florida and throughout the United States. And Stacey won't loosen her grip on this cause until every working dog (an estimated 15,000 nationwide) is vested.

"When I read the article, I thought how devastating that must have been for the canine officer," Stacey said. "And I thought how devastating that would be for me if I lost my dogs too."

At the time, Stacey's own German Shepherds (the preferred breed for police duty), Saber and Rainbow, had been in her life for only a few months. Yet they had already bonded with her in a way that made Stacey particularly sympathetic to the police officer and his loss.

Stacey's grief propelled her into action. She decided to raise money to purchase protective vests so no other dog would suffer such a fate. She scoured the house for a collection jar (a milk jug) and settled on the alliterative name.

"I told her, if you want to collect money for the police, you have to call the police chief and the sheriff and ask them," said Jackie Moore, her aunt. It was President's Day when Stacey called the local police chief, and he made an appointment to see her within two hours. "We were lucky to have a police chief who was so supportive," said Moore. "He listened to her intently and was so impressed with her. He had his friend, who is a lawyer, incorporate her charity. He gave us all the tools that she needed to be successful."

Of course the most crucial components in the success of Pennies to Protect have been Stacey's unwavering passion and commitment. At the age of 9 and today, Stacey never considered her youth and inexperience as obstacles in her mission.

"It didn't matter when I started my charity how old I was," she said. "I had a lot of people who were so supportive and I was doing something good, helping the police dogs. It doesn't matter how old you are, you can do whatever you put your mind to."

As Stacey increased her knowledge of how police dogs are trained, her faith in her objective grew stronger. "When police dogs are going through training, their work is play," she said. "When they are going in to get an armed suspect and get shot, they don't understand they may be in danger. They were just going in to play."

Police dogs establish a special bond with their handlers, who instill confidence, courage and trust, said Howard Day, a Seminole County Deputy and certified canine search and rescue handler. "The dogs are doing it to please their master because their reward is to play with a special toy with their handler," he explained. "They can be charging full speed at a bad guy and told to stop, and that dog will instantly drop to his belly."

Dogs are taught a variety of commands, including "bark and hold, which is when the dog stands within 10 feet of a suspect and "holds" the person with an intimidating bark. They are also taught to restrain by clamping their jaws (on a particular body part) and holding with their full body weight (not tearing side-to-side). "We will actually train with the bite sleeve, turning circles, and the dog will spin in a big circle and hang on until told to release," said Day.

The dogs are also trained to follow commands when gunfire is going off around them, Day said, and it is all a big game that is rewarded with a special toy. "Being gunshot is a thought the dog cannot even conceive of," Day said. "We've had suspects stab dogs, and the dogs have continued. We've had human partners shot, and the dogs continue to contain the suspect until another canine trainer comes in and gives the release command.

"They are truly officers," he continued. "They go home with officers, spend time with their families, and hundreds and hundreds of hours training with officers/partners, and their job is to go into harm's way to apprehend the bad guy, get between their human partner and the bad guy."

The question Stacey poses is so simple, Day said. "Why can't the dogs be protected like their human partners?"

Of course, canine vests have been available for some time, but, at an average cost of $1,000, they are cost-prohibitive for most law enforcement agencies. And the sad reality is protective canine vests are typically low on the priority list. For smaller departments, with only one or two dogs, the price tag is pretty hefty when compared to the overall budget. Bigger departments, like Washington, DC with 35 dogs, simply can't allot those kinds of funds for canine vests.

"Can you imagine the uproar if DC spent $35,000 to vest police dogs?" asked Greg Smith, a Sanford (Florida) Police Department Sergeant, who is in charge of the special operations division. Smith first became aware of Pennies to Protect Police Dogs in 2001, when he was in training with his first canine partner, Aeros, an explosive detection dog. "Stacey came to visit when she discovered that Sanford had a new canine and she wanted to vest my dog," Smith said. "Aeros never worked a day on the road without a vest because, by the time we got out of training, she had a vest for us."

Although Aeros is his first canine partner, Smith supervised the canine division for years and was well apprised of the perils dogs face on a daily basis. "The dog is a tool," Smith said. "The dog will go in first before any police officer. He will put his life on the line. He's a great partner, a great friend, but he is still a tool."

However, since Aeros has become such an integral part of Smith's life, both personally and professionally, it is comforting to know he is entering harm's way with the best available protection.

"I wear a bullet proof vest," Smith said. "It's a great feeling knowing when we go into a burglary in progress the likelihood of his surviving is raised dramatically."

Smith, a father of two, was so impressed with Stacey and her efforts that he became a member of the board of Pennies to Protect Police Dogs and travels with her throughout the country to speaking engagements, fundraising efforts and to deliver vests to various agencies. "Last year, I took Stacey 3,700 miles on vest delivery trips," he said. "We get vest requests from all over the continental United States."

As a member of the board, Smith helps to evaluate requests, organize fundraising efforts and lend credibility (as a law enforcement officer) to her appeals. Sometimes, he is still amazed that a 9-year-old girl had the gumption to do what she did. "Think about when you were 9, what you were thinking about, and it actually raises the bar to what she's done," Smith said. "She had a goal, achieved it and surpassed it. We are near $300,000 that she has raised."

The vests Stacey donates to canine officers are knife-proof, in addition to being bulletproof, and the finest quality available. Stacey's charity has purchased so many that she is able to secure a cheaper rate, about $600.

Her efforts are especially appreciated in Osceola County, which is the second-fastest growing county in the state of Florida and one of the top 10 in the southeastern United States, Sheriff Charlie Aycock said. "All agencies, you want to try to put in enough money to everything, but we need more deputies on the street, more equipment."

It's a constant challenge to keep up with the population growth and supply enough deputies to maintain adequate service with good response times, Aycock said. "The county is strapped for money, so sometimes we don't get enough money to buy vests for the dogs. I really have a lot of respect for her. She raises the money and targets agencies to help. She's a sweetie and I just try to help her out as much as I can."

Sheriff Aycock met Stacey a few years ago when he was on the campaign trail in Kissimee, Florida. "We exchanged business cards," he said. "She was in the early stages of starting her charity, and I was impressed with her."

After he was elected sheriff, Aycock agreed to be on the board of Pennies to Protect. He helps Stacey out as often as he is able by writing letters or putting in calls to other sheriffs or police chiefs "to help her get her foot in the door." He's seen Stacey's charity touch police departments, sheriffs' offices and correctional institutions throughout the United States. "She is just a fabulous young lady," Aycock said.

Stacey Hillman's efforts have attracted the attention of various media, politicians and high-profile figures. She was thrilled to appear on the "Sharon Osbourne Show" in January and has met everyone from President Bush to grateful recipients of the vests. In May, she attended National Police Week in Washington, DC.

Being home-schooled by her Aunt allows her some flexibility with her schedule, but Stacey could easily be otherwise occupied (like many 13-year-old girls) with boys, shopping and such. However, something about this little girl couldn't rest until she pitched in to do her part.

"Pennies to Protect has changed our lives because it has given her opportunities that she would never have otherwise," Stacey's Aunt Jackie said. "She can deal with presidents, congressmen, just like the kids next door. She does public speaking, and this has given her so many opportunities and made her realize that we are not in this world to just take care of ourselves, and how important it is to do things for other people."

Stacey never dreamed her simple idea and labeled milk jugs would reap such rewards. "It makes me feel good because now I know that when the police dogs go into a dangerous situation where the suspect may be armed, I know the police dogs will be protected," she said.

Find out more about Stacey's charity at or by writing to:

Stacey Hillman
c/o Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 140
P.O. Box 1742
Sanford, FL 32772-1742

Photographs by Cami Johnson,