When Randy Mucha was the K-9 handler for the Oak Brook Police Department in the mid-1990s, he got word that the Chicago Police Department was refusing to allow one of its officers to keep the police dog to whom he’d been assigned.
Mucha, who started suburban Oak Brook’s K-9 program in 1993, wrote a letter to CPD laying out the reasons the officer should be allowed to keep the dog upon its retirement and asked the department to reconsider its decision.
Like Marlo, the German shepherd who served alongside Mucha as Oak Brook’s K-9 officer for eight years, the CPD dog had lived at the handler’s home and bonded with his wife and children.
“As anybody who’s ever owned a pet knows, the dog becomes part of the family,” Mucha said.
According to Mucha, CPD officials took offense to his letter, which they perceived as questioning their authority. They complained about it to Oak Brook’s police chief, who called Mucha into his office and suspended him one day for sending the letter.
In the end, CPD bowed to public pressure and let the officer keep the dog, Mucha said. But the episode showed how police dogs were viewed by many departments.
“The dog is purchased by the agency, and it’s considered a piece of equipment,” Mucha said. “There was just no extra thought to the realization that this is a living, breathing thing. It’s not a gun or a handcuff.
“In the handler’s mind, it’s his own dog,” he said. “In the government’s mind, it’s a piece of equipment.”
Not anymore – at least as it concerns the lives of K-9 officers after their police careers.
Thanks to a new Illinois law, officers partnered with a police dog are first in line to keep the dog once it is deemed no longer fit for service.
If the officer does not want to keep the dog, the dog may then be offered to another employee – or to a nonprofit organization or no-kill animal shelter, which may facilitate an adoption.
The law applies to employees at municipal, county and state law enforcement agencies.
“Before this, the fate of a highly trained, highly skilled K-9 officer was up to the different municipalities,” said Michele Kasten, vice president of the Illinois Federation of Dog Clubs and Owners, which advocated for the new law. “Sometimes, a handler wouldn’t even know what was going to happen to his partner.”
The law, which went into effect Jan. 1, was proposed by state Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park. The bill passed unanimously in the Illinois House and Senate, and Gov. Bruce Rauner signed it Aug. 15 at the Illinois State Fair, surrounded by a handful of K-9 officers and their handlers.
“You would be amazed how many co-sponsors signed up for the bill,” said Cullerton, noting a rare example of bipartisanship during the state’s two-year budget crisis. “This law sort of transcended everything and allowed people to feel good about it.”
Cullerton proposed the bill after talking with officers across the state and learning that police dogs were classified as “inventory” or “equipment” on police rosters.
Although dogs have worked with police for more than a century, Mucha said until recently, K-9 officers were viewed as “big and bad – and for the most part, something that the public feared.”
After persuading Oak Brook’s Village Board to launch a K-9 program in 1993, Mucha created a website, K9cop.com, one of the first sites devoted to police dogs.
Although he no longer runs the site, he said the internet’s growth helped departments share stories about K-9 officers. Now, he says, people are used to hearing about police dogs that tracked down a lost child, saved a human officer from an attacker or sniffed out a potential explosive.
“There is a certain level of bonding that happens when you work constantly with a dog,” Kasten said. “And when it comes time for the dog to retire, it’s almost like a death in the family if it’s taken away for you.”
Kasten said police dogs begin training just a few weeks after birth. After a year or two of training, the dogs become K-9 officers, assisting police by searching for drugs, explosives, evidence or missing people and protecting human officers.
“The fact is, the officer trains with the dog,” Cullerton said. “They go off to an eight-week training course, and the dog becomes part of the officer’s family. So to treat them as equipment when they retire, I don’t think that’s right.”
Funding still short for retired police dogs
Despite the new law, the fate of K-9 officers upon retirement is often uncertain.
Kasten said many departments have no plan for retired police dogs. And some departments lack the money to provide care for K-9 officers upon retirement, she said.
Purchasing a police dog is not cheap to begin with.
Most police dogs are imported from Europe and cost on average $8,000, according to the National Police Dog Foundation’s website. Training costs an additional $12,000 to $15,000 per dog.
And because K-9s are considered a specialty unit – meaning departments could run without them – the dogs are not included in an agency’s regular budget, the foundation says.
“There are simply not enough funds for most agencies to include the cost of K-9s and their upkeep in the general budget,” the foundation states on its website.
To make sure police dogs receive proper care, Kasten said dog clubs often raise money to assist departments with K-9 officers, providing funds for special dog food, medication, veterinary bills and equipment, such as bulletproof vests.
Kasten’s home club, the Belle City Kennel Club, recently purchased specialized oxygen masks for dogs that work with firefighters.
“We don’t shout about what we do,” she said. “We just do what needs to be done.”
When Marlo, Mucha’s dog, retired after an eight-year police career, Mucha purchased him for $1 from the Village of Oak Brook to formally take over ownership and liability of the dog.
He also assumed all costs of caring for Marlo, such as dog food and veterinary care, including paying $200 per month for antibiotics to treat an autoimmune disorder Marlo developed shortly before his death.
“Even when it was time to put Marlo down, I did it on my own,” said Mucha, who is no longer a police officer. "I took him to the vet, I stayed with him during the injection, I buried him in my yard. And he’s with me today, in my garden, guarding my house and property.”
Mucha said he doubts there will be new laws regulating the care of police dogs after retirement, as dogs require varying types of services depending on their health and other factors.
“Any handler is going to pay [for care] anyway, but there’s been a movement recently to actually help pay for the food and the vet care and everything else into retirement,” he said. “You will see more and more departments offering to pay reasonable amounts of money toward the cost of the dog even during retirement."
Mucha said he keeps the plaque from Marlo’s retirement in his home office. Also on display is Marlo’s collar, along with the first tennis ball used during their training together.
“It’s something that never leaves you because it’s such as big part of your life,” Mucha said.
Follow Alex Ruppenthal on Twitter: @arupp
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