It was a bright sunny August afternoon with the temperature pushing 90 degrees and virtually no breeze. Sitting in a dry creek bed, wearing the equivalent of five winter coats, I could feel the sweat dripping down my face as I heard the dog rapidly approaching. I would like to tell you that all the sweat was from the heat and humidity and none of it was from fear. I would like to tell you that I wasn’t nervous about the large German Shepherd barreling down on me, but both would be a lie. After what seemed like forever the dog came through the brush, clamped his teeth firmly around my arm, and began to drag me backwards up the bank where the handler was able to “take me into custody”. I got about 30 seconds to try and cool off with whatever breeze came my way before it was back into the creek bed to play Hide-and-Go-Bite with 7 more dogs. This was my introduction to K9.
From the beginning of my law enforcement career, I was fascinated by watching the K9s work. They all seemed to have such an intense drive to work no matter what they were doing. Even chasing a ball around a field was done with a mix of determination and joy, as though nothing in the world mattered more than catching and biting that fuzzy yellow ball. These dogs looked nothing like the German Shepherds I had at home who would chase after a squirrel but would give up as soon as it was out of reach. Shortly into my career, I knew I wanted to be a K9 handler for the department, so I started attending the monthly county-wide training days to watch and learn more about how these dogs worked. What started out as a way to try and learn from the sidelines quickly evolved into me volunteering to be the decoy and letting all the dogs bite me during the different scenarios (starting with that dry creek bed). To this day, I think I have learned more about the way working dogs operate by being in a bite suit than anything else I have done.
Going back to that hot August afternoon: once I had been found by the last dog and it was time to get out of the bite suit, I was dripping in sweat. I sat down on the ground in the shade and desperately tried to cool off. While drinking bottle after bottle of water I noticed that the dogs who had been placed back into air-conditioned vehicles after the track were also still panting heavily when the handlers got them out for a round of obedience or just a quick potty break. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but I would later come to understand just how hard these dogs work and how much energy they bring to each task they perform.
When I was selected to be a handler for the department, I was taught in Handler’s School to pay attention to your dog when out working: to be ready to pick up on when the dogs give an alert, but just as important is the fact that oftentimes these dogs will work until they drop. One of the most important things to do as a handler is to know when to safely stop the dog and return them to a place they can cool down and rest. It is in these dogs’ nature to keep going until they physically cannot go any further. This trait is why we choose them to do what they do, and it is what we love about them.
Like professional athletes who have pushed themselves throughout their careers, by the time these dogs are ready to retire they are often feeling the impact of their years of service. Even in retirement or near the end of their lives, these dogs still want to give everything they do 110%. They may be a little gray around the muzzle and a little slower, but they dig deep to find that youthful drive, and now it is even more important that we keep a watchful eye on them.
Please consider donating to the Shadow Fund to help and support these dogs who have left it all on the field. By helping to assist with the high cost of medical care that is typically needed with retired K9s, the Shadow Fund allows these dogs to live out the remainder of their lives in relative comfort and receive the treatments they need without creating an undue financial burden for their handlers.
–Deputy Nate Hibschman
Hendricks County Sheriff’s Office