A four-legged race

The Mt. Laurel Police Department recently hosted its second annual K-9 5K to raise funds for their K-9 unit. At the event, K-9 officers Chris O’Prandy and Wilmer Santiago were presented with pet oxygen masks designed for their hard-working partners by nonprofit Pennies for Pets. 

Mt. Laurel Police Department/Special to The Sun: At the Mt. Laurel Police Department’s K-9 5k, from left, Lt. Ted Howell, Sienna Filippine, 13, and Wilmer Santiago with K-9 partner Nina pose for a picture in front of Filippine’s Pennies for Pets booth.

On Monday, Sept. 2, the Mount Laurel Police Department held a 5k race that was truly for the dogs. The second annual K-9 5K was a fundraising event at Laurel Acres Park to raise money for the department’s K-9 unit, consisting of Officer Chris O’Prandy and his K-9 partner Gunner, and Officer Wilmer Santiago and his partner Nina.

According to O’Prandy, funds raised at the event will be going to the department’s K-9 fund, which covers things like veterinarian expenses, equipment and training. This year, the department is also planning to add a third K-9 unit to the force.

The 5K was organized by the department’s fraternal order of police chapter and featured a half-mile dog walk portion that drew close to 40 other dogs, along with their owners to the event.

“The dog walk portion is picking up a little bit,” said O’Prandy, who estimated that about half that number showed up at the first 5K last year.

O’Prandy met his K-9 partner Gunner as a puppy in 2015, when the department officially reinstated its K-9 unit. Since then, they have spent nearly every hour of every day together and Gunner has become a permanent member of the O’Prandy household.

“The bond that a handler has with his dog is like no other relationship that you could ever think of because the dog comes with me everywhere I go,” said O’Prandy. “I spend more time with my dog than I do with my wife and kids, and that’s probably every handler.”

This bond is important as the dog and handler are working partners in the field. O’Prandy needs to be able to read every sign Gunner gives off and every change in behavior to operate as an effective team.

When they are not on a call or out in the field, the K-9 unit serves as a great community outreach tool, making several public appearances and demonstrations throughout the year. At the 5K, O’Prandy says the dogs drew people to them and helped open a dialogue between officers and the public they serve.

“It’s a nice thing to have for the community. Something that brings people together,” said O’Prandy.

A welcome guest to the 5K event was the unique nonprofit organization Pennies for Pets, which was established in 2017 by 13-year-old Sienna Filippine. Filippine’s organization, which she runs with help from her mom, Colleen Campbell, collects donated items for local animal shelters and monetary donations to purchase pet oxygen masks for first responders.

“I just love helping animals and it makes me happy knowing that I could be making a difference,” said Filippine. “My end goal is to provide as many first responders as I can with these life-saving mask kits. We all have pets and they are our family. I want to be able to help save a pet in an emergency, and I know that these mask kits can do just that.”

The mother-daughter team regularly reaches out to police departments in the surrounding area to inquire about K-9 units and whether they would be interested in acquiring oxygen kits for their dogs. They recently connected with O’Prandy, who ended up inviting them to the 5K event.

“Up until having that conversation, I had no clue there were masks designed for the dog’s muzzles in order to give them oxygen,” said O’Prandy.

Back in May, Filippine held a fundraising event with the Mt. Laurel Rotary Club, and was able to raise enough to purchase two kits for K-9 units Gunner and Nina. She presented the dogs and their handlers with the kits at the K-9 5K.

According to Filippine, like O’Prandy, many of the first responders they reach out to are unaware that these kits even exist. 

“I hope they never have to use them but it feels good knowing that they have them on hand if needed,” said Filippine.

In addition to helping treat smoke inhalation from a house fire, Filippine says these kits can be used by K-9 units who are subject to excessive heat while operating out in the field. According to O’Prandy, given the heat we experienced this summer, he plans to use the mask if Gunner shows signs of exhaustion while they are working.

“They don’t know when it gets too hot that they should just stop working like us. These dogs just want to get to the end goal, find the person or complete the task at hand. I like these masks in order to give our dogs concentrated oxygen,” said O’Prandy.

Although mother and daughter work as a team, Campbell says Filippine is the one running the show and she is just there to support her daughter and her vision for the organization.

“It is a wonderful feeling to see your daughter making a great impact at such a young age. We are very inspired by her and will be here every step of the way as she continues her mission to help save these animals,” said Campbell. 

For more information about Pennies for Pets, visit penniesforpetsnj.org.