True blue on the street and at home: Police dogs earn their keep

2012-01-15T00:00:00Z 2012-01-15T22:50:15Z True blue on the street and at home: Police dogs earn their keepBy Lindsay Machak lindsay.machak@nwi.com, (219) 933-3246 nwitimes.com

CROWN POINT | If Dan Murchek could have his way, he would keep a police dog with him in his administrative office. He misses that companionship.

Murchek, Lake County's assistant police chief, previously worked with three dogs as a canine handler for more than 12 years and understands the relationship an officer and dog share.

"I loved all of my dogs," he said. "They never let you down."

The most heartbreaking experience he had as a handler was when his second dog, Ajax, became Lake County's first police dog to be killed in the line of duty.

The dog was shot in the face during a foot chase in 1997. The recollection of the lost connection is a sore spot for Murchek, and more than 14 years later he still can recall every detail of the tragedy.

"The individual turned and pulled up his shirt and shot my dog in the head," he said.

Murchek said once he realized the man had a gun, he gave the order for the dog to drop down, but it was too late. A bullet tore through Ajax's face and throat.

"There was nothing I could do," he said. "It was very difficult to watch."

Police shot and killed the man after he shot at Murchek and several other officers. Murchek returned to the dog and found he was still alive.

"He took a bullet for me," he said. "He saved my life."

As Murchek frantically drove to the Lake Station Pet Clinic, Ajax refused to lie down in the back of the car.

"He just laid his head on my shoulder, and the blood was just everywhere," he said.

Murchek called his wife and asked her to rush to the clinic because 3-year-old Ajax was part of the family.

Ajax underwent hours of surgery in Lake Station and died just after Murchek's wife arrived.

"To this day I sit here and second-guess myself," he said. "Why did I let him go?"

Officials planned to fly him to Purdue University's veterinary school in West Lafayette for more surgery.

"I cried like a baby," Murchek said.

Canine handlers' days don't stop when they go home or when they are off the clock, Porter County sheriff's Officer Darrell Hobgood said.

He trains with his 3-year-old German shepherd, Athos, for about 30 minutes every day.

Athos is always ready to work, Hobgood said, whether he is scheduled to.

"When we're on vacation, he hates it," Hobgood said. "There are days when he just wants to go do something."

The dog's loyalty to Hobgood is visible. His big brown eyes don't miss a move.

"He sits outside the bathroom while I shower," Hobgood said.

While he enjoys being the aggressor while doing bite work and tracking, the 85-pound German shepherd is a gentleman when it comes to dealing with his honorary sister, a 3-pound Yorkshire terrier named Tila.

Nose to nose, Tila growls at Athos and nips at him. He ignores her and turns toward Hobgood, waiting to be told what to do.

Athos' laid-back attitude is what attracted Hobgood to him when he chose a partner at the canine academy in Peru, Ind.

"When he works, he's high energy, but when he's away from work, he can be normal," Hobgood said.

Athos understands two languages. At work, he obeys Czech, but at home he understands English.

Hobgood's wife, Katherine, said the dog listens to her when she gives him commands in English only if her husband isn't around.

She didn't expect Athos to become such a beloved part of the family, she said.

"I was just kind of expecting him to be Darrell's dog," she said. "But he's really warmed up to me."

East Chicago Officer Darrell Shaffer knows how dedicated the relationship between the dog and his family can be.

Shaffer has three children and a wife whom his police dog, Eddy, also looks after.

"As soon as we get home from work, he wants to know where everybody is," Shaffer said. "He takes a walk down the hall and checks out the bedrooms, and then once he knows what's going on he comes back to me."

Some officers can't believe the different personality Eddy shows at home compared to work. Shaffer said most officers think he's scary because they only see Eddy working.

"Canine dogs are taught to bite and hold," he said. "They're not doing it to be ferocious; it's a game to them."

However, all three handlers agree: The dogs have become beloved members of their families who don't waver in their loyalty.

"The best part is it's every day that you're working with an animal that's your best friend," Hobgood said.

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