BELFAST, Maine — Ruger always got his man.
That’s how law enforcement officials around Waldo County remembered the black-and-tan German shepherd that died in June after working for nine years as a police K-9, sniffing out drugs, criminals and lost people around the state.
“Ruger was a great dog,” Waldo County Deputy District Attorney Eric Walker said last week. “He worked around here for so long. He had a great reputation. He’s going to be missed.”
Ruger went on a thousand calls during his career with Maine State Police Trooper Steve Hills of Belfast. He retired in December of 2010, which is a long run for a police K-9, Hills said. Ruger and Hills were named the state’s K-9 team of the year in 2004 and 2005.
Ruger did not die in the line of duty. He was put to sleep on June 20 after suffering serious health problems.
“On his last day, I picked him up in the cruiser,” Hills said.
It was always Ruger’s favorite place to be — but during his retirement months, his usual place behind the trooper was taken by a new K-9, Lola.
“It broke me up. He finally got his way, that one last time,” the trooper said, sorrow apparent in his voice. “But he wasn’t going to come home.”
Police dogs play a special role in Maine law enforcement. Like their handlers, they get called out at all hours of the day and night for all types of incidents. They go through rigorous training, with a 12-week patrol school at the beginning of their careers and then with 16 hours of training each and every month thereafter. Ruger and Hills also completed an eight-week narcotic school program early in Ruger’s career, making him one of the first drug-sniffing dogs in the state.
“K-9s are obviously hugely important,” Walker said. “When someone runs from police into the woods, or there’s a situation with a lost person in the woods, that can make all the difference in some cases between life and death. It is an incredibly useful tool for law enforcement.”
But police K-9s are not always on the clock. Ruger was Hills’ K-9 partner and he was also the family pet.
“He was a great pet. Great with my family,” the trooper said. “Every single night, he would go into each bedroom and check on the kids.”
When Hills picked up Ruger in 2002, he was already a full-grown adult dog, full of energy and with a stubborn streak.
“He and I would butt heads sometimes,” Hills said. “Sometimes that’s what makes a good police dog — dogs with a mind of their own. He was a thinker.”
One example of Ruger’s independent ways was the time when he and Hills received a complaint of a stolen vehicle in Northport. As Hills was chasing down the car on a dark, foggy night, he noticed movement coming from the stolen vehicle. After the driver was caught, he said that he had thrown a brick of heroin out the window, and Hills gave Ruger a perimeter to search for the illicit drugs.
“Ruger wouldn’t stay in that boundary. He kept trying to take off,” Hills remembered. “He didn’t want to do what I wanted him to do. But what Ruger was trying to tell me was that it wasn’t a brick of heroin. It was a person who had jumped out of the car and run away.”
He said that he learned from that experience, and others like it.
Another memorable call that did involve illicit drugs came when Ruger was in Augusta, searching a car impounded from a suspected drug dealer by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. Officers had hand-searched the vehicle without finding anything. Ruger “alerted,” pointing to a spot on the driver’s side of the vehicle. Police searched again and found nothing. They figured that the dog might have been confused by the scent of residual drugs that were no longer in the car. But Ruger was adamant. Something was there. Eventually, the German shepherd grabbed hold of the rug on the driver’s side and started to growl.
Officers found a hidden compartment in the rocker panel where $25,000 worth of drugs and a handgun were squirreled away.
The drug dealer would have gotten his car back eventually if it hadn’t been for Ruger, Hills said.
Another incident that Hills recalled brought tears to his eyes. A few years ago, he and Ruger were called to find a suicidal man who had taken an overdose of prescription drugs and wandered into the woods.
“When I got there, the ambulance personnel estimated that we had about an hour,” he said.
He and Ruger began to track a scent — but another officer had been searching in the woods and Hills suspected that the dog was actually tracking the wrong person.
The clock was ticking.
“This is urgent. We’re afraid this man’s going to die,” Hills said.
At one point during the search, Ruger’s head had snapped in a different direction, and Hills made note of their location. Later, they returned to the place where his head had snapped and Ruger found another track to follow.
“We found the man. He was up against a tree, crying and still taking pills,” Hills said. “The man was saved. And one of his family members said, ‘Thank you. There will be a special place in heaven for you and your dog.’”
Hills said that he didn’t want to make it seem like Ruger was a perfect police dog.
“He did his job,” he said. “I don’t want it to come across like I’m boasting.”
But Ruger loved his job as a police K-9. He retired twice — the first time in 2009, after which he quickly was brought back to duty because his replacement washed out of K-9 school.
“He was so excited to come back to work. He was like a kid,” Hills said. “Ruger was a good dog, and I loved him.”