2012-01-03 / Front Page

A (police) dog’s life: Sagadahoc’s first canine cop retires reluctantly

BY DARCIE MOORE Times Record Staff


ROCKO, LEFT, a 9-year-old German shepherd, retired last month as Sagadahoc County’s police dog. Brix, a German shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix, right, will succeed Rocko and become the county’s second canine officer if he successfully completes patrol training later this year. 
COURTESY OF IAN ALEXANDER ROCKO, LEFT, a 9-year-old German shepherd, retired last month as Sagadahoc County’s police dog. Brix, a German shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix, right, will succeed Rocko and become the county’s second canine officer if he successfully completes patrol training later this year. COURTESY OF IAN ALEXANDER BATH — It may have seemed like the start of a normal shift this particular Saturday night, just like the hundreds he’d pulled during the last eight years.

But that Saturday shift marked the fourlegged officer’s last day on the job as Sagadahoc County’s police dog. Nine- year- old Rocko, a German shepherd who is well known throughout the county and even has his own badge, has spent most of his life riding with handler Cpl. Ian Alexander, with whom he lives in Richmond. But the week of Dec. 3, Alexander had to make the difficult decision to retire Rocko six months ahead of schedule when bad hips began making it difficult for Rocko to jump into the back of Alexander’s patrol vehicle.

So Dec. 3 marked the last day of Rocko’s law enforcement career.

During his last shift, Rocko wasn’t alone in the back of the K9 Ford Explorer vehicle. The county’s new 20-month-old police dog, Brix, a German shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix, rode along with Rocko. Brix is already certified as a drug dog and will become patrol-certified after completing 12 weeks of patrol training starting in March.

Alexander said the approach of Rocko’s last day on the job was emotional for him, and although he could have retired his canine companion immediately when he was advised by a trainer earlier in the week that Rocko’s deteriorating hips would force the dog to retire from law enforcement, Alexander wanted to take Rocko out for one last patrol.

Rocko finished his career without ever having to bite a suspect.

Rocko’s experience was evident during his last shift. When the vehicle slowed, he whined, expecting the vehicle to stop soon and provide him with an opportunity to go to work. When the blue lights flashed, or when Alexander picked up the radio to run a license plate number, Rocko barked, getting “keyed up,” Alexander said.

Although he never had to leave the vehicle this night, Rocko kept close eyes on Alexander whenever he approached any of the vehicles he’d pulled over, barking until Alexander got back in the vehicle.

Rocko is the Sagadahoc County Sheriff ’s Department’s first police dog. Alexander found the 8-week-old pup in LaGrange through Uncle Henry’s, and bought the puppy for $800. Alexander had told then-Sheriff Mark Westrum he’d like to be a canine handler for the department, which department supervisors agreed was needed.

He hoped Rocko would pass all the required tests to qualify for training. And when the time came, he passed them all.

“I remember my first training day with him,” Alexander said. “ Of course, Rocko, just a puppy, couldn’t jump in my cruiser, so I had to lift him up in my cruiser.”

The first day of training took place at Brunswick Naval Air Station and involved an obedience walk. In the company of several trained dogs, “here I come with my little shepherd ball of fur,” Alexander recalled. “It just didn’t go well, but I wanted to get Rocko used to being around other dogs, and obviously, I was a green handler.”

Alexander and the dog kept going to the training until it was time for Rocko, now 85 pounds, to attend patrol school. After passing, he went into action at 1.5 years old in 2004.

To be certified as a patrol dog, for example, a dog needs to be able to conduct a building search and indicate to a human officer where a suspect is located; conduct an article search, which may involve evidence recovery; and be able to track a fleeing or lost subject.

Rocko has performed many tracks, most of them at night. He’s been called to businesses after they were broken into, and to crashes after which the driver ventured off into the woods.

Rocko has always been a fast tracker, “100 miles an hour,” Alexander said. “You can pull back on his lead but he still wants to go fast.” When the dog’s head goes down, he’s tracking, “and it’s game on.”

“I know dogs are capable of finding the suspects, but what happens is, the handler has to learn to read his dog,” Alexander said. Often if you don’t find a suspect, it’s because the handler has missed something. “Their nose, it’s incredible.”

Alexander has a remote control button that pops the back door of the cruiser to release the dog. He remembers using it once on New Meadows Road in West Bath following a report of a man breaking into a car.

When Alexander arrived, the suspect was in the car so Alexander parked a distance away. As he approached on foot, the suspect suddenly popped up in the bushes. Rather than running back to the car to get Rocko for the track, “I just popped the button and Rocko came to me.” They tracked the suspect about 100 yards before catching him and taking him into custody.

Once during a track in Richmond, Rocko badly injured his shoulder after he stepped into a hole, but he still continued on the track and caught the suspect.

A veterinarian initially told Alexander that Rocko probably wouldn’t return to police work because of the injury. But after several months of rest, Rocko returned to duty.

Police dogs are trained around gunfire and will make the ultimate sacrifice for human officers.

“These dogs are very dedicated and committed,” Alexander said. “I don’t think people realize how much they do and how much work goes into it.”

It’s a lot of training and paperwork, and also a big commitment for Alexander who, yes, loves dogs. He and Rocko twice competed in the Iron Dog competition at the police academy in Vassalboro, to which all of Maine’s canine teams are invited to compete in the various drug and patrol challenges.

Alexander and Rocko did them all.

“The best one is apprehension of a subject from a canoe,” Alexander said. “I haven’t gotten wet yet. You put your dog and yourself into a canoe. You’ve got to paddle out across this nasty-looking pond, go around a couple of buoys. At some point, you’re going to have someone on the embankment yelling at you. There’s a certain point where you’ve got to deploy your dog. So somehow your dog’s got to get in the water, he’s got to swim and then go in for a bite, or the reward.”

When the dogs see the “suspect” on the embankment, “they start flipping out, and you’re in the canoe just praying, and everyone else is hoping that you’re going to flip. ... Oh, that’s a blast.”

“Overall Rocko has had a successful career,” Alexander said. On one assignment, he found $17,000 in drug money hidden in dirty laundry in a home, and another time he found $75,000 worth of marijuana in a basement freezer.

“He deserves his rest now,” Alexander said.

After a month in retirement, Rocko still heads for the door when he senses that Alexander is preparing to leave for work. The dog stares at him, and Alexander has to tell him to stay. Then the retiree gets to lie around the house, play with Alexander’s two boys — and just be a dog and part of the family.

“He’s enjoying life,” Alexander said.

dmoore@timesrecord.com

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