Petra, a Belgian Malinois, last week became the first Colorado Springs police dog to die in the line of duty — but she didn't succumb while trying to foil a crime. The 3-year-old died in what police say was a freak accident.
On Monday, Sept. 8, Petra was on the fourth floor of the Police Operations Center parking garage, on South Nevada Avenue, taking part in a training exercise with another police dog, according to Lt. Sal Fiorillo, who heads CSPD's Specialized Enforcement Division. The other dog, Belka, had completed the exercise and been put back in his police vehicle.
Then the handlers let Petra out of her vehicle, Fiorillo says. Immediately, she ran across the parking area, jumped over the restraining wall — and plummeted to the ground. She hurt her back so badly she had to be euthanized.
Fiorillo wonders whether she saw something while Belka was training, possibly a bird. "Who knows what drew her attention over there?" he says. "We'll never know."
Police dogs are significant investments for police. CSPD has 10. Most, like Petra, come untrained, but they still cost between $8,000 and $9,500. (Dogs with some training but no certification cost up to $11,000.) Though the exact time varies, dogs and handlers train for around 440 hours before they're certified, says Fiorillo. After that, dogs and handlers do constant on-the-job training.
Petra had been working with the department for 15 months, first as a patrol dog. Most patrol dogs are trained in scent detection, usually for narcotics; Petra was a standout, says Fiorillo, so she was transferred to explosives detection in May. And she got a new handler. Typically, a police dog has one handler for its career.
"These dogs go home with the officers. They live with the officer and their families," says Lt. Catherine Buckley. "They are [family]." When retired, the dogs often stay with their handlers as pets.
Dogs do shift between handlers from time to time, due to a handler retiring or, as in Petra's case, a change of duties, Fiorillo says, but they usually bond with their new handlers quickly. He adds that Petra was getting along well with her new handler. Buckley declined to name the officer who was her new handler out of sensitivity for him and his grieving family.
In light of Petra's death, Fiorillo says, CSPD will review its training procedures.