08/16/1999 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Stephanie Taylor arrived at the Oceanside, Calif., police department on June 14, she was welcomed with many wet kisses—and an ecstatic display of tail-wagging. While the six-dog canine unit would probably greet any 10-year-old that way, Stephanie was an honored guest: During just three weeks last spring, she raised $3,000 to buy bulletproof vests for Oceanside's dogs in blue. "Boy, it was hard work," says Stephanie. "But I learned how generous people are."
Stephanie started her Vest-A-Dog campaign after reading about a Newark, N.J., police dog killed in the line of duty. Still mourning her own dog Kela—"my best friend, who had to be put to sleep because of crippling arthritis"—she was inspired by Newark residents who raised money to buy vests for their city's police dogs. "I thought, 'If they can do it, I can,' " she says.
Her mother, Kathy, suggested Stephanie call a friend on the force, Officer Jim Wall, who offered to be the campaign's poster officer, along with his canine partner Tiko. Stephanie's parents are divorced—her father, Jeff, lives nearby. Kathy advised her determined daughter and chauffeured her to pet-care centers and veterinary clinics, where she dropped off flyers and hand-painted donation boxes.
While the Oceanside police are grateful for the 3½-pound vests, the dogs themselves are still getting accustomed to them. "It's like wearing a pair of new blue jeans—uncomfortable at first," says Officer Greg Rainwater, speaking on behalf of his partner Nitro. "But then you break them in."