K-9 Rocky is recovering nicely but will not be returning to work. After breaking two bones in his left ankle during a training exercise early this month, the Dutch Shepherd has officially retired, thus ending a nine-year career – including 166 drug busts – with the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO).
Rocky’s partner, Corporal Deputy K-9 handler Gary Spears, is sad to see Rocky’s career come to an end, though acknowledges that nine years is a pretty long run for a K-9. Rocky hurt himself while trying to jump into the back of a flatbed pickup during a routine training exercise on Nov. 7.
“He didn’t make it all the way and banged his ankles,” Spears said. Now, while Rocky heals, he’ll continue to ride along in a crate in the back of Spears’ vehicle but will not be doing any more work. Spears, a 26-year CCSO veteran, will be taking Rocky home to live with he and his family, including their two dogs and cats.
“He’s had a great career,” Spears said. One of Spears’ fondest memories was when K-9 Rocky chased down a couple kids in a stolen vehicle and caught one of them on foot with his teeth. The drug busts, too, are proud moments for him. Without Rocky, those arrests never would have been made. “He’s served his community well.”
The tricky part will be when Rocky heals, and Spears has to return to work alone. In the past, Rocky has gotten pretty upset and ripped the blinds down when he couldn’t see his handler. Nonetheless, he’s great with the family, and Spears has no doubt that Rocky will learn to adjust as a non-working dog.
What Spears, nor the CCSO, didn’t see coming was the high cost of Rocky’s vet bill for surgery, which was just over $5,000.
When Spears initially approached Campbell County Sheriff Scott Matheny and Undersheriff Quentin Reynolds for the money on a Thursday for a surgery Spears had set up at the Animal Clinic of Billings for the following Monday, Nov. 18, Matheny explained that there wasn’t enough money in the budget to pay the vet bills.
The CCSO’s total annual budget for its three K-9s is $5,000, which includes training supplies, vet checks, dog food, toys and kennel costs when deputies are out of town. Matheny told Spears that he would need to ask the Campbell County Commissioners for special funding at the commissioner’s next meeting the following Tuesday, which he said he fully intended to do.
“We treat the dogs just like we do one of our own,” Matheny said. “We wanted to do whatever we could to help.”
Spears understood the budget was tight. In the past, he said the department had paid for surgeries for at least two other dogs that he knew of, including K-9 Magnum’s broken front leg as well as another surgery to pin K-9 Mick’s leg back together. Both surgeries were years ago, around 2005 Spears thought, and he couldn’t remember the dollar amount for either.
Both dogs were very young, Spears noted, which is why he thinks their surgeries were covered.
“It’s only happened two times that I can remember,” he said. “We’ve been really good at staying within budget.”
Sheriff Matheny said that Spears then explained he might have found a nonprofit group willing to pay for the surgery and thought he could take care of it, at which point both Matheny and Reynolds expressed relief.
Spears also said that due to the nature of his injury, he had no choice but to retire Rocky.
Project K-9 Hero, a national non-profit whose mission is to take care of medical and other expenses for working and retired K-9s, stepped in and paid the bill. Now, along with having his surgery paid in full, Rocky will also be covered for life, including any long-term care and subsequent surgeries, as well as food and partial assistance down the road with funeral costs. After paying for the surgery, the group posted a notice on social media, explaining that a K-9 at a Wyoming sheriff’s office had been injured and that the department was refusing to help, and asking for donations to help pay for Rocky’s surgery along with expenses of other working dogs throughout the country.
The donations began to flow in from within and out of the state and county, as did the criticisms for the way in which Rocky had been treated. Many of the donations were made anonymously, Project K-9 Hero founder Jason Johnson said, with people donating anywhere from $15 to $250 or more. Some included comments like “I read about Rocky, the K-9 Hero from Wyoming and want to help cover his medical bills,” or “These are arguably the most highly trained and dedicated members of armed forces. They have no idea what fear is. Rest well K9s, you served proudly,” and “All veterans need to be taken care of, either two legged or four legged!!!”
Johnson said he wasn’t looking for controversy when he and his organization offered to cough off the money for Rocky’s surgery. He was just trying to help the dog. His group had been contacted by Sgt. David Dorn of K-9 Specialized Training and Consulting in San Francisco, who had apparently been notified about Rocky by Spears’ daughter, Angela. All Johnson knew was that a K-9 needed surgery and that the handler had been told by the sheriff’s department that the funds weren’t immediately available and that Spears would have to pay the bill. Johnson then told Spears to fill out an application, and the next day, the funds were released.
Talking on the phone from his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last week, Johnson spoke about his passion for taking care of service K-9s. It was not his intention to stir any pots, he explained, but he just wanted to do his part to make sure that these animals get the treatment and support they need and deserve. As a guy who has spent his life working with canines, he has a big heart for the dogs that have served along beside him and a long list of credentials to back it up, from his time training K-9s for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Marshals Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and many more. He also served in the military police and as a police officer in Washington, and is frequently noted as an expert on the subject, and even wrote a children’s book about his first K-9 partner, titled “K-9 Flash Becomes A Hero.”
Stories like Rocky’s are not uncommon, Johnson said, which is why he formed the nonprofit in the first place. He’s not blaming anyone in particular, but said that frequently many agencies don’t budget enough money for these animals. Last year, for example, Johnson said his nonprofit had picked up the bills for a police K-9 in another state who had come up with lymphoma and been retired on the spot.
“I’m trying to change the way the nation cares for their canine heroes,” Johnson said. “It’s my job to affect change.”
To this end, Johnson recently appeared before Congress to help push a new bill, the Canine Hero Act, that would establish a federal grant program to provide financial assistance to nonprofits and individuals caring for retired working dogs who served in the military or other federal agencies.
This is his mission – to get these working K-9s the care they need, both on and off the job.
Johnson and Spears both credited the help of the people who donated and the support both locally and beyond.
Rocky is recovering nicely, Johnson said, but has a long road of rehabilitation ahead of him. Project K-9 Hero plans to pick up all his bills.
As for Spears, he’s got at least another four years until retirement, during which he plans to train K-9s as he has for the past two decades but is not planning to take on another dog himself. There’s not enough time, he said, and he doesn’t want to leave a dog without a handler. Instead, he is planning to start a local nonprofit to raise funds to cover medical costs and other unforeseen expenses for CCSO K-9s moving forward to which he thinks he’ll find a lot of community support. And, of course, he’ll be taking care of Rocky in retirement.
Click here for more information about Project K-9 Hero and the Canine Hero Act or to donate.