To the world, the police K9 is a dog, an animal, a pet. To many police personnel, the K9 is a tool, a partner, or a weapon. To me, my K9 is my partner, a member of my family, and is my and perhaps another’s saving grace. Could you make the decision to sacrifice YOUR beloved animal to save an unknown person or yourself? This is a situation K9 handlers make every day as they begin their shift at work and it is never an easy one.

In the police academy you train with many weapons and many tools that will make your job easier and/or safer. You learn to keep those tools clean and in great condition, you learn that tools can be broken, defeated or sacrificed for the safety of others or yourself. What if one of these tools had a heartbeat? Had love and loyalty for you? Would give its own life without question and without fail for you? My job as a K9 handler requires me to mentally prepare to make that ultimate decision at any time, to trade the life of my friend, my partner for that of myself or another.

Let me introduce you to my first K9, Cliff. While at work, he was a dedicated warrior, full of drive, a whirlwind of motion and was fierce in his protection of me.  He was a huge black and tan, long hair shepherd from Czechoslovakia, who relentlessly tracked, hunted, and searched out criminals. Cliff lived and breathed police work. He was gruff, stoic and gave of his affections carefully and with suspicion. Cliff at first did not bond with me and quite frankly would have dominated me in every way if he could have succeeded. After identifying an undiagnosed medical condition and fixing it, Cliff and I bonded, truly and finally meshed. I felt how much he loved me and understood his unwavering loyalty to me in our six years together.

At home, Cliff was never off the clock. He would lay with his back to a wall, whichever way afforded him the best view of myself and my kids. He would not leave the room we were in unless it was to go outside, and then he would do spot checks through the windows. He would snuggle briefly with the kids and then go back to his “duty station”.

The only luxury that Cliff took for himself was my 5 year old son’s lion sleeping bag that was adopted as his own. Cliff also was given a stuffed teddy bear early on his career that he loved and cared for at home, neglecting various other toys. He never chewed it, just carried it with him from room to room, which seemed to bring him comfort.

Many times, Cliff would fall asleep on that lion sleeping bag with his teddy tucked in by his side. When I would get up, Cliff would instantly awaken, ready to relocate to wherever I was going. None of the deputies that knew Cliff could reconcile that he had such a soft side for us and his teddy bear as he was such an aggressive and fierce force at work.

On a traffic stop one night, I made a decision that almost cost me the life of my beloved K9 Cliff. I was battered by a large W/M, who outweighed me by at least one hundred pounds and was a professional fighter. I was punched in the head and nearly knocked to the ground. My back up, a male deputy, began to grapple with the violent suspect.  I was then able to release K9 Cliff from the patrol unit. K9 Cliff immediately engaged the male, and after a brutal battle, all of us ended up at the suspect’s truck.

The suspect, fueled on cocaine, was able to get inside his truck and get it in gear as K9 Cliff, myself, and the other deputy struggled to stop him. As the vehicle torpedoed onto the interstate, K9 Cliff did not release the suspect and was drug along beside the truck as well as the other deputy. As I heard Cliff’s nails dragging along the asphalt, two shots were fired and then K9 Cliff released but immediately began to chase the truck directly into the path of a semi-tractor trailer.

I shouted his recall command but I am sure over the noise of the tractor’s squealing tires he never heard me. K9 Cliff impacted directly into the tractor’s passenger side rear tire, careening off onto the roadway where he lay in a heap. I ran to his side and began to gather him in an attempt to move him from the roadway. He slowly regained consciousness and as a passer-by motorist stopped to assist, K9 Cliff attempted to shield me from this approach. Even after surviving this horrible encounter, K9 Cliff’s first thought was to protect me, to shield me from this new threat. How can anyone view such devotion as just a tool? I cannot and I don’t.

In my career with K9 Cliff, we encountered many violent situations and people. There were times when I did not know if he or I would survive. We suffered countless injuries and yet, he was never just a tool to me. He was a living breathing and loving extension of me. He was not merely my tool, but my protector, partner and he will always own a large piece of my heart.

Sadly, after a hard five year, turbulent career, K9 Cliff was retired due to arthritis earned from his many injuries. K9 Turk then entered our lives. Unfortunately Cliff’s teddy was mauled by the new K9 and after finding it, I buried it in the trash can. Later in the evening, I saw the torn and battered teddy again lying tucked in beside K9 Cliff as he drifted off to sleep. Cliff must have rescued his dear friend from the trash can. I had the teddy sewn up and that friendship continues to this day. After my beloved K9 Cliff passed on a mere three months later, I again tucked his beloved friend into his side for the last time.

Working with these dogs, one begins to understand their value, the unending loyalty, and the vital contribution to law enforcement they bring. The K9 is a partner, a guide, a protector and the light in the ever increasing violent world that law enforcement must deal with. They are far beyond a mere tool; they can be the last resource between ending your shift for the night or forever.

Master Deputy Charlotte Raschke has worked in law enforcement since 1988.  She started her career in detention services and worked all phases of patrol, street crimes, crime prevention, property detective and the K9 unit. Deputy Raschke has been in K9 for 13 years as a handler, working three patrol utility/narcotic dogs and a single purpose EOD dog. Charlotte is currently a K9 trainer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa, FL.  She was twice awarded the Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, the Deputy of the Quarter, and four life saving awards.  Charlotte is an adjunct Instructor for St. Petersburg College’s Multi-Jurisdictional Counter Drug Task Force.