GREENVILLE, SC — In the northern reaches of Greenville County, on the grounds of the Sheriff's Office training center, a monument stands in a grassy plot in front of a pine and hardwood forest.
The two 8-foot-tall granite panels bear the names of eight K9s who once worked alongside deputies. A portion of each one's ashes are buried in an urn at the base.
It's a testament to the powerful bond, not just between the handlers who spend most of every day with their dog, but also with the Sheriff's Office itself. The loss of a dog echoes through the department, as the Greenville Police Department experienced a week ago when K9 Gio escaped a cage in the back of his handler's truck and was run over by the car following behind.
Some in the community have wondered why such a highly trained dog would jump out of the back of the truck. Sgt. Michael Austin, who oversees the K9 unit for Greenville Police Department, has a simple answer.
Because he was a dog.
Smart dog, to be sure, but still a dog.
Interim Chief Mike Gambrell said there's no telling what got Gio's attention that Saturday afternoon. Officer Nate Smith was taking Gio to Austin to care for over the weekend. Smith and his wife were going to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
On Woodruff Road near Scuffletown, Gio managed to open the crate and jump over the tailgate of the truck into the path of the car behind. Smith saw the incident in his rear-view mirror. One witness described Smith picking up the dog as the saddest thing he's ever seen.
Gio's death has diminished the Police Department's K9 force, which at one time had six dogs. Four is considered fully staffed. Now there are two, Rocky and Valor. The others were retired.
The Sheriff's Office is understaffed by one, said Sgt. Patrick Donohue, who oversees the unit. The sheriff has one of the largest K9 units in the state with 13. That includes three single-purpose dogs. They specialize in arson and explosives, and one is a drug dog used in schools. Nine are dual purpose, meaning they are drug dogs as well as trackers.
K9s are considered officers, partners even, and routinely are put in high-risk situations, including chasing fleeing suspects and equalizing an armed standoff.
"The dogs have saved many deputies' lives," said Master Deputy Doug Wannemacher, the Sheriff's Office dog trainer.
Greenville County has become the go-to agency for dog training among Upstate law enforcement agencies, largely because of Wannemacher's designation as a master trainer from the North American Police Work Dog Association. He is one of 73 in the country to complete the multi-year courses.
He has designed a 600-hour course, more than most departments require, to take what trainers call green dogs and turn them into animals that can sniff out drugs, track suspects and missing persons and attack on command. The training is offered free to other agencies, which Donohue said saves taxpayers $10,000 or more per dog.
The cost of the dogs $6,000 to $7,500 is paid either with donations from the public or from money seized through drug convictions. Gio was bought in 2013 with seized funds. He was the youngest dog on the city's K9 force.
Typically, the dual-purpose dogs are either German shepherds or Belgian Malinois and often are bred overseas. Donohue said American breeders most often breed for looks, not work.
Trainers look for a dog that is confident and courageous, especially in the training they call bite work the attack that can subdue a suspect.
"Any dog can bite," Donohue said. "You want a dog with the proper mindset to only bite when it's told to."
A dog's sense of smell, hearing and sight, especially at night, are greater than a human's. They also run faster.
A dog can find hidden drugs in a matter of minutes. It could take an officer hours. Donohue said he's seen a dog find a human scent on a gun that's been thrown in a pile of garbage. The dogs can also recognize a change in a suspect's behavior that an officer might miss.
K9s are usually male because breeders tend to keep the good females for reproduction, Wannemacher said.
Chemically manufactured scents are used initially in the drug sniffing class. Once the scents are imprinted, the dogs move to smell out the real thing supplied through the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
The training is designed to push the dog to its limits, to get him to fail, and then to revisit whatever skill is being developed. The dogs also undergo 10-hour sessions every Wednesday.
"We want to reinforce in training, the dog is completely dependent on the handler," Donohue said.
Austin said people generally don't realize how much work it takes to train these dogs. They see the finished product in schools or other community demonstrations. Even typical commands like heel require repetition and consistency.
"That is not a normal thing for a dog to do," Austin said. "We literally take baby steps."
They use food as reward on occasion, but most often use a piece of rubber hydraulic hose that the trainer throws down when the dog does what he's supposed to. It is a short playful time between the partners.
"It creates a bond," Austin said.
The Sheriff's Office has had bloodhounds for as long as anyone there can remember, but Greenville County's canine program began in earnest about 10 years ago, Donohue said.
The city of Greenville's program revved up in 2006 when the first dual-purpose dog was bought, Austin said. Austin had been on the road for six years and wanted to do something different. Building a K9 unit offered a new challenge.
The department bought Fox, a shepherd-Malinois mix, that could find narcotics and do what Austin calls man work, which is tracking suspects and missing persons and searching buildings.
Austin was the handler. Like all departments, the city bought the kennel for Fox and erected it at Austin's house. All handlers take their dogs home, which makes being part of the K9 unit a round-the-clock job.
It is perhaps the most stressful of all law enforcement jobs. The officer is always on call and is put into risky situations more frequently than other officers. Every call except for a missing person could pose a threat to life.
Austin experienced that in 2009 when he was called to a location off Mauldin Road. A suspect was stealing license plates off cars and took a hostage and drove off in a bus for people with special needs. Officers shot at him as he fled, then blocked the bus on Mauldin Road and Interstate 385 south. The suspect fled. Fox pursued and caught him.
As Austin walked up, the suspect pulled a gun and pointed it at Austin's head. Fox knocked the gun loose.
"I believe 100 percent that Fox never understood the guy was holding a gun," Austin said. "Fox bit him at the right time and he didn't have time to pull the trigger. He saved my life that day."
Kroc and Roscoe
No city or county K9s have died in the line of duty, but two county dogs have been wounded. One was Wannemacher's first partner, Roscoe, a black German shepherd who had been on the force for about two years.
Wannemacher and Roscoe took a call from a patrolman on the scene that a suspicious person was in a vehicle outside a house. He wouldn't get out of the car and pulled a sweatshirt hood over his head. As deputies attempted to put stop sticks behind the car to keep him from driving off, the man put the car in reverse, almost hitting two deputies, Wannemacher said.
With the tires deflated in a dead end, the man got out, ran into a field of tall grass and Roscoe was deployed. Officers saw ammunition in the car. Wannemacher called Roscoe back but he had already gotten to the suspect, who then shot the dog in the neck. The bullet went through his chest and out but missed all the vital organs.
Four months later, Roscoe was back at work and was awarded the Medal of Valor from the sheriff.
In 2008, officers serving a warrant for a purse snatching confronted the suspect in his car. He refused to get out. Deputies used a Taser and fire hose, and the man started to run. Kroc was sent to subdue him and was stabbed in the side. The knife cut through his ribs and punctured a lung.
Then the man came toward a deputy, who shot the suspect. The suspect lived.
Kroc was back on duty in a few months, and at 10 years of age three years longer than most dogs serve Kroc is still working.
Roscoe retired in 2010 and was given to his long-time partner, Wannemacher. Wannemacher said the dog wanted to keep working so much he would sit in front of the patrol car to keep him from leaving.
Last year, Wannemacher put him in the patrol car one last time, turned on the lights and rode around a while. Suffering from hip dysplasia and arthritis, Roscoe was put to sleep by Upstate Veterinary Services, which handles all vet work for the department. The same folks who saved his life.
Gio, too, was taken to Upstate Veterinary, but in that case there was nothing to do. Police spokesman Johnathan Bragg said it was likely he died instantly.
On Friday, more than 100 people gathered outside the Law Enforcement Center to say goodbye to Gio. Under a huge crape myrtle, a podium and table had been set up. An honor guard stood at attention. Smith, his wife and three children stood nearby
On the table was a photo of Gio and Smith, a plaster cast of Gio's paw and a wooden box holding Gio's cremated remains. All those items will be placed in the showcase of fallen officers inside the LEC, Gambrell said.
"My heart went out to Officer Nate Smith," Gambrell said, when he got the call Gio had died. "Gio was part of our law enforcement family."
Gio reported for duty in July 2013. In March, he performed the duty he'll likely be most remembered for, tracking a suspect on Hillside Drive who had eluded officers for 24 hours.
Austin said the pairing of Smith and Gio wasn't coincidental. High energy. On the go.
"We knew they'd be the perfect pair," Austin said. He also said he considered Gio the best K9 he's ever seen, and that includes his own, Fox, who is now retired and living at Austin's house.
At the end of the ceremony, Gambrell walked over to Smith and handed him his own copy of the plaster cast of Gio's paw and the framed photo of the two of them together. One after another, people walked to Smith to offer condolences.
Gambrell said he'll be talking to Smith in the coming days to see if he wants to stay in the unit. It was an accident. A terrible, horrible accident that will hurt for a long time.
YOU CAN HELP
To donate to the city of Greenville's K9 program, send tax-deductible donations to the attention of Officer Johnathan Bragg, c/o Greenville Police Department, Canine Unit Donations, 4 McGee St., Greenville, SC 29601. Donations to the Greenville County Sheriff's Canine Foundation can also be mailed to 4 McGee St., Greenville, SC 29601.