When workaholic K-9s retire, it can be a tough transition
For the last four years, New London police Officer Jeffrey Nichols has had a routine.
Working the evening shift allowed him time with his family before work and, come lunchtime, he’d be sitting at the dining room table eating while Bessie, his bloodhound, sat beside him with her own meal. Then later, when he grabbed his lunchbox, Bessie would be waiting at the door ready to jump into their police cruiser and head to work.
But then one day, for the first time in years, as Nichols grabbed his lunchbox and Bessie waited at the door, that routine was broken.
Bessie had retired, so Nichols used a bone to coax his 11½-year-old former partner away from the door, and then he slipped out, leaving Bessie behind and less than thrilled.
Over the next few days, as Nichols was at work, Bessie stared out the front window for hours or perched by the back door. She also, for the first time, destroyed a trash can in defiance.
While pets generally are left at home, police K-9s are with their partners all the time. They live together and they work together, finding missing people, making drug busts and tracking down suspects. But when the time finally comes for the dogs to retire, the transition for these duos with a unique bond can be difficult.
Dan Lane, president of the Connecticut Police Work Dog Association and a Waterford police officer, said police dogs frequently are asked to do dangerous things, and it is important to understand that while the dogs are assets for the department and tools for officer safety, they’re also partners who are going to be there until their last day.
“I’m not sure you can describe it,“ Lane said of the relationship between an officer and his dog. His K-9, Ike, retired on March 1. “They’re our partners and, when push comes to shove, we ask them to do something very dangerous and they do it for the love of the job and their love for us.”
Not a traditional pet
A police dog, or K-9, typically hits the road alongside his or her officer between the age of 1½ and 2, and from that point on they are truly working dogs. In southeastern Connecticut, most K-9 officers work as patrol officers, meaning each still has all the responsibilities of a typical officer but also has a K-9 riding along and must respond to calls in which K-9 assistance would be useful.
A K-9, dependent on the dog’s specialization, could spend a typical shift tracking a suspect, conducting a building search for narcotics, assisting with evidence recovery or looking for missing persons, among other things. Officers and K-9s also are frequently involved with public education, doing demonstrations, meeting schoolchildren and the like.
At the end of an officer's shift, the police dog goes home with them, and although the duo is on-call for an emergency, the job then becomes to focus on rest.
“They’re very active during work, so my dog, when he goes home, he goes right into the kennel because I want him to rest,” Lane said.
This focus on rest also means that the dogs generally don’t play a lot when they are at home.
“They’re called working dogs for a reason because most of the good working dogs want to go nonstop,” Waterford Police Detective Todd O’Connell said with a laugh. He previously worked as a K-9 officer alongside his purebred German shepherd, Atos, for almost seven years. Atos retired three years ago but still lives with O'Connell and his family.
“As an example, if we work a double shift, we go about 17 hours straight; the dog would stand in the back of the car almost the entire time," he said. "He didn’t want to miss anything.”
O’Connell said there's home-life and work-life, and some dogs probably are better than others at switching between them. For him, Atos molded well into family life.
Lane said one big responsibility of police officers is ensuring that the K-9s are sociable, so that the dog can “turn it on and off” as need be. Watching officers train the dogs, you can see this firsthand. K-9 officers adore their furry friends, offering praise in somewhat humorously high voices. The dogs still like to play, it is just that their play is work, and ultimately, like most dogs, they love their family and are incredibly loyal.
“It really is a team; you have to have that bond and that trust,” O’Connell said. “If you’re tracking someone in the woods and they have a weapon, you have to trust your dog and if you don’t, you’re putting yourself and all the officers with you in danger.”
Transition from workaholic
That intense trust and the inordinate amount of time they spend together make K-9s and their partners unique.
“You have a spouse that goes to work, a kid that goes to school, the dog is with you 24/7, so it’s definitely a different relationship,” O’Connell said. “We get on their nerves I’m sure, and they get on ours at times, but there’s definitely a bond that forms.”
Eventually that relationship has to change a bit with the dog's inevitable retirement. A police dog’s career can vary widely, depending on the breed, its health and the type of work it does. However, officers hope a dog will retire between the ages of 9 and 11, at which point they typically go on to live with their partner as a more ordinary house dog.
“It was definitely a change in lifestyle, more so for him than for me because I was still going to work,” O’Connell said of when Atos retired. “In the first few weeks, I’d go to work and he wouldn’t go with me, and he was whining and upset because he was used to going to work with Dad."
“I think he’s adjusted, but it certainly took a while,” he added.
For many K-9s — like humans — adjusting to retirement can be tough. These are dogs that were chosen in part because of their enthusiastic work ethic, so getting left behind is challenging.
Instead of training, the dogs take more leisurely walks. Instead of going to bed when their handler does, they might sleep when the rest of the family does.
Some officers have found that with the dog spending more time with the family, its bond with other family members may grow.
Bessie now enjoys following Nichols' wife, Amanda, around the house and adores their 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. Now she often sleeps beside Nichols' son’s bed.
“She really loves the kids, in fact if they come home from school and they don’t say ‘hi’ to her, she follows them around the house barking and howling at them until they stop and say ‘hi’ to her,” Nichols said, laughing.
Nichols is planning to bring Bessie hunting with him next season, and he lets her play hide-and-seek with the kids in the woods near their house.
“My kids, she finds them and it’s like a game and she is chasing them around the yard,” Nichols said. “She’s got a big smile, her eyes are wide, she acts like a puppy chasing the kids around the yard."
A quieter cruiser
Of course, a K-9's retirement has certain ramifications for the officers, as well.
Rides in the police car get much quieter.
“The biggest difference for me was not having the dog in the car with me because he’s huffing and puffing and breathing ... and my dog was constantly spinning in the back of the car,” O’Connell said.
Nichols said that he had to adjust to not having Bessie in the car to talk to and also has retained certain habits from driving with a dog in the back seat, such as making wider turns.
When a dog retires, its partner also assumes full responsibility for the costs of the animal's food, kenneling and medical bills, whereas those previously were covered by the department. Officers say, however, that at the end of the day, they get to keep a great dog.
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