Cass County Sherriff’s Deputy Stephen Valentich and his Deputy K-9, Champ, spend a lot of time together. Basically, 24 hours a day, the handler and dog are inseparable, no matter where the calls take them.
“Champ goes places with me I wouldn’t go alone,” Valentich said.
That was the case last December as Valentich and Champ helped the Harrisonville police search for a stealing suspect on foot.
Valentich lost sight of Champ in an overgrown field, before hearing a yelp and a bark. Champ had located the suspect and was stabbed in the neck trying to apprehend him, a wound Valentich didn’t discover until they returned to the patrol car.
“My heart sunk as soon as I saw what happened,” Valentich said. “All I could do was drive as fast as I could to the vet. I had the same feeling as if my human partner had been stabbed.”
It took almost a month, but Champ’s wound has healed and he’s back fighting crime by his partner’s side.
“Our bond has definitely grown through this experience,” Valentich said.
As with Valentich and Champ, this reciprocal bond and loyalty between K-9 handlers and their dogs deepens through time and shared challenges.
In the midst of a chase during a 2015 shooting incident, Jackson County Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Norton tripped on his K-9 partner Bdar’s leash and injured his leg.
“Bdar thought I was shot and ran back to watch over me,” Norton said. “I remember his fierceness and loyalty. I could see in his face he wasn’t going to let anything happen to me. He would have done anything for me.
“This loyalty is the biggest thing. I spend more time with my dog than with my family. We’ve done everything from Boy Scout demos to bombings. We run the gamut of everything together.”
It’s a similar story across Kansas City and, really, the country.
“Wrecker is with me 24/7,” Lenexa Police Officer Brentt Donaldson said of his K-9 partner. “We’ve only been together a year, but the bond grows quickly when you’re out there together. Knowing that dog is going to give everything he has builds that bond more.”
Donaldson joined the Lenexa Police Department in 2014. He was promoted to the K-9 Unit in January 2017, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
“I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to be a K9 officer,” Donaldson said. “Since I was little, I knew this was what I wanted to do. When I went to Lenexa, the biggest thing I strived for was becoming a K9 officer.”
Donaldson’s K-9, Wrecker, a Belgian Malinois, is a six-year veteran of the city’s K-9 unit, a fact that helped ease Donaldson’s transition just as it would with any more senior partner.
“It helped that Wrecker had experience,” Donaldson said. “He showed me the ropes. I look at him when we’re training. I see he’s giving his all, so I want to give him my all. I can’t explain the bond. It’s like having a best friend and always wanting to be with that friend.”
Although the K-9 partnership primarily is between an officer and the dog, family also plays an essential role.
“The biggest thing people need to know is that this is a full-family commitment,” Norton said. “I couldn’t do it without my wife and children.”
The only way it works is if the rest of the family embraces adding a K-9 officer into the mix.
“Wrecker loves my wife to pet and brush him,” Donaldson said. “He’s almost like a cat. He goes up to her and rubs on her leg and doesn’t give up until she breaks out the comb and brush.”
Platte County Sheriff’s Deputy Ian Johns and his K-9 partner, Diago, also enjoy the off-duty family life.
“When we get home, Diago disappears,” Johns said. “You’ll find him with my children, wherever they are. At home, I only exist for Diago when it’s time for him to eat.”
Before being partnered with Diago, Johns had experience as a K-9 handler in the military, but it was a very different experience.
“Military dogs are kept in a kennel,” Johns said. “You go and get your dog at the beginning of the day. Then, you drop him off on your way home. Here, Diago lives with me. We come to work together, we go home together.”
While some dogs have some freedom at home, it’s still far from a typical relationship with Fido, the family pet.
“Though Diago is part of the family, he’s still not a pet,” Johns said. “He works for the department. But when he retires, we hope we can keep him. He’s a great dog.”
Norton is all too familiar with K-9 retirement after Bdar’s seven-year career ended in November.
Bdar, 11, was retired from service and Norton was assigned Racker, a much younger German Shepherd.
Both dogs live with the Norton family, but it’s been a challenge getting Bdar to settle into retired life.
“Bdar and Racker tolerate each other. but I wouldn’t say they like each other,” Norton said. “In Bdar’s mind, I’m still his guy, but Racker also thinks I’m his guy.
“Bdar loved his work but he’d slowed way down. I wanted him to retire and relax. He deserves to sit around and eat tacos or do whatever he wants, but that’s not the way he sees it. He sees me going off to work with the new dog and he’s not getting to go.”
It’s just as challenging in some way for Norton.
“(Bdar) stands at the door and cries every day when I leave,” he said. “I’m pulled between these dogs big time.”
Occasionally, Norton takes Bdar for cruises in the patrol car, so his buddy can get a “ride” in. They also go to the park and play ball, before Bdar hops back in the car, barks at a few people, heads home with Norton.
“This makes him happy for a while,” Norton said. “Lately, Bdar has started to bond with my wife. They go on walks and play together. I think he’s relaxing more.”
Unlike Bdar and Racker, Champ is a happy-go-lucky dog at home.
“Off duty, he acts like a house pet and pushes the limits there,” Valentich said with a laugh. “He’ll sneak up on furniture or walk out of a closet with a shoe in his mouth. He’s a completely different dog at home than at work. He’s very social — until it’s time not to be.”
Work in service of their partners is the essence of the K-9 officer’s spirit.
“Work is Diago’s life,” Johns said. “He sees me come out in my uniform and he’s ready to go. Like people, there are some days he doesn’t want to go to work and he’ll go and lay in his bed, but most days he loves to work.”
Diago’s work life is abit different than dual-purpose K-9s — such as Champ, Wrecker, and Bdar. Dual-purpose K-9s are both patrol and detection dogs, but Diago is a single-purpose detection dog, which allows him more freedom.
“Diago is very laid back, temperamentally speaking, and he hasn’t completed the bite training required for patrol work,” Johns said. “So, he can mingle with people more freely.”
As part of their role in the community, the Johns and Diago visit schools together.
“He’ll really likes the kindergarteners and first-graders,” Johns said. “He’s very good with the kids and lets them pet him.”
When it comes to K-9 partnerships, the loyalty and commitment to each other and their communities runs deep. Through good and bad, laughter and pain, these dynamic duos are partners for life.