Old habits die hard for Marion Police Cpl. Jeff Hartwig.
Even on the days Hartwig would leave his partner, Rico, at home, Hartwig found himself going out to his squad car to check on an empty backseat or reaching up on tight turns to hold on to a furry head that wasn’t there.
So you’ll have to forgive Hartwig if – for the next few weeks, at least – he seems just a little out of sorts.
This Saturday will mark the end of Rico’s nearly eight-year career with the police department. The Belgian Malinois, the department’s second K9 ever and its first bomb dog, will retire on Oct. 12 and make way for a new K9 team, Officer Mitch Walser and his dog, Fador, a Dutch Shepherd.
Hartwig and Rico will be honored and Walser and Fador will be introduced at a pancake breakfast at Grace Baptist Church, 1461 East Post Rd., Saturday morning.
Hartwig said Rico has packed a lot into his short career.
Rico and Hartwig have done security detail for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and the Dalai Lama and participated in sweeps at Kinnick Stadium before every home football game. Just last week, the duo was involved in a search for a handgun.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I’m doing a lot of interesting things.”
Hartwig, a 14-year veteran of the police department, said he became interested in working with dogs during his time in the Marine Corps. In early 2005, he put in to become the department’s second K9 officer.
Hartwig said he initially hoped to be paired with a drug dog, but has no complaints about serving with a bomb dog.
“We don’t get used as much, but when you are used, it’s usually a heightened awareness situation,” Hartwig said. “You’re evacuating a place, you have the bomb team there.”
The Marion Police Department has three K9 officers – two trained in drug detection and one trained for bomb detection. K9s cannot be cross-trained to sniff out both drugs and guns, but all dogs are trained in tracking and apprehension.
A bomb dog might seem unnecessary for a town of fewer than 30,000 residents, but Marion Police Chief Harry Daugherty maintains the dog is a valuable asset.
“The way the world is and what’s going on, I think it’s important that we have one,” Daugherty said.
Daugherty points to the Boston Marathon bombing. Marion was scheduled to host a 5K race the following weekend, and Daugherty said there was concern among residents about the local race.
“I got calls, ‘Are you going to send your bomb dog around before we get there?’ There was a concern,” he said.
“A year ago, I didn’t do that. This year, I did do that.”
Daugherty also loans out his K9 teams to other agencies when requested, and Hartwig and Rico also engage in public relations activities.
Daugherty said he lets the individual handler decide when it’s time for the dog to retire. In Rico’s case, Hartwig said health problems and age have been a factor.
In January, a cancerous mass in the dog’s spleen ruptured. Rico was diagnosed with malignant lymphoma, a non-aggressive, slow-progressing cancer.
And at 12 and half years old, Rico is showing signs of arthritis, losing some of his night vision and generally slowing down, Hartwig said.
Hartwig will sign a waiver giving him full responsibility for the dog, who will go home to live with him and his two children. Knowing that he’ll have more time with Rico as a pet and companion helps with the transition.
In addition to introducing Fador and Walser, who are wrapping up training at an Indiana kennel this week, artist Santiago Sanchez will unveil a painting of all the city’s K9s that will be displayed in the new police headquarters.
A limited number of autographed prints will be available for purchase. Proceeds will support the Marion Police Department K9 Fund.