Twenty-five days from retirement, Ralph was needed by police.
A Fort Wayne patrol officer had pulled over a black Pontiac Bonneville on the city’s south side, and soon enough Ralph was there, circling the car with his nose to the wheels, to the body, to the bumper. The police dog got excited at the trunk, and minutes later officers were pulling out a metal lockbox that contained more than 75 grams (about 2.6 ounces) of marijuana.
Twenty-one days from Ralph’s retirement, a United States Postal inspector needed help.
The inspector asked whether Ralph could check out a suspicious package investigators felt was somehow linked to drugs. Once again, Ralph took a few whiffs and got excited.
The inspector obtained a warrant and pulled from the package a stocking cap – which probably had the odor of narcotics, hence Ralph’s reaction – wrapped around $3,000 cash.
Ralph’s find sparked an investigation into who sent the package and why.
“That’s what makes this so tough,” said Ralph’s handler, Lt. Terry Furnish of the Allen County Sheriff’s Department. “Even up to the end, he’s still got it.”
The pooch’s nose might, but with aging hips and aging ears, Ralph the K-9 unit – the longest-working dog in the history of the Allen County Sheriff’s Department – has officially hung it up.
Ralph retired last week at age 14.
Starting work with the department in 2000, Ralph lasted 12 years and seven months in a field where most dogs work between five and eight years.
A Belgian Malinois bred in the Netherlands, the dog now will spend most of his days away from the office.
Three binders sit on the edge of Furnish’s desk, each containing a voluminous history of Ralph’s career.
There are police reports, commendations from various law enforcement agencies, pictures, news articles, letters from schools and children, all directed at Ralph.
The dog helped nab five people who robbed a gas station in 2006; he caught two men who burglarized a house in 2005; last year, he tracked down two more men who robbed a tire store in Hoagland.
“Here’s one from the city,” says Furnish, flipping through the pages and stopping at a letter of thanks from the Fort Wayne Police Department. “This one was for a bank robbery.”
Police use K-9 units in almost any type of investigation.
The trained dogs can search for drugs, track suspects on the run from robberies or burglaries, track people thought to be missing or protect an officer. Furnish also used Ralph for public relations, visiting schools and giving demonstrations to children, showing what the animal can do.
And Ralph was a natural – extremely friendly, extremely nice. With most police dogs, Furnish said, you have to ask a handler’s permission to pet or approach. Not Ralph. The dog was more likely to do the approaching.
In Allen County, police dogs are certified annually in everything they are trained to do by the county’s master trainer.
But during this past certification process, Furnish noticed that Ralph began to lag while the pair followed a track on a path more than a half-mile long.
Ralph started out way ahead of Furnish, but by the end he was walking beside his handler.
The dog was already having trouble with stairs due to his hips and was forbidden in Furnish’s basement. And his hearing was going, as well, which could pose problems in the field.
Furnish finally decided it was time for the dog to retire. Like most police dogs who retire, Ralph will continue to live at his handler’s house.
“It was a tough decision,” Furnish said. “I thought about it and slept on it for four or five months.
“But it was time.”
On retirement day – Tuesday – Ralph was in doggy heaven.
Someone baked the dog a cake – white with white frosting and “Happy Retirement” scrawled across the top. Others brought jars of Milk-Bones.
“It’s a good way to retire,” Furnish said about his partner’s last day.
In one of his binders, Furnish keeps a picture of Ralph and himself from their first day together – Feb. 15, 2000. Ralph’s hair around his muzzle is dark in the picture. So is Furnish’s hair on top of his head. A short time before that picture was snapped, Furnish picked up Ralph from a kennel in southern Indiana.
Ralph’s orange coat and his friendly demeanor made him stand out among the German shepherds. Furnish, who grew up with dogs, named the dog after his deceased father, William Ralph Furnish, also a dog man.
“I think he probably laughs about that,” Furnish said.
Now, both Ralph and Furnish sport gray hair. Furnish has no idea what’s kept the dog working so long other than good luck and good genes.
“Dogs are just like humans,” Furnish said. “Some people get cancer, some don’t. Dogs are the same way.”
A day after his retirement, Ralph was in his familiar office, sprawled out at Furnish’s feet, his eyes closed.
The dog woke up at Furnish’s home just like other days, got excited when Furnish put on his uniform and tried to use a muzzle to push open the door to get to the patrol car first.
But the dog is here only to participate in a media interview, not because of work. The trips to the office will become less frequent, something Furnish has thought about.
“I think he might be a little upset at first,” he said, looking at the snoozing dog at his feet. “But I think within a few minutes he’ll be just like this, over on his bed by the window.”
For Furnish, who has been a part of the department’s SWAT Team and a fatal-crash investigator, the last 12 years on the force have been the most rewarding, he said.
And Ralph’s retirement has also got him in transition. Furnish is 59 years old and three years away from retirement. Even though he loves dogs, loves the work as a K-9 handler, he’s not getting another dog.
“I would just compare him to Ralph,” he said. “He’s just like a kid. You get attached.”
And as Ralph lies down across Furnish’s feet, you get the sense the dog knows exactly what he means.