His storied snout may now be encircled by grey fur, but Major the Toronto police dog was once the Wayne Gretzky of sniffing.
A 72-pound German shepherd–Belgian Malinois mix with a piercing caramel gaze, Major could find someone who went missing yesterday or who died 25 years ago. He could locate evidence deep underground. As a highly trained cadaver dog, he could differentiate between animal and human remains, after learning the distinct scents of organic compounds.
His nose helped make arrests and tragic discoveries, the most high-profile in January 2018, when he and fellow police dog Blue made a seismic breakthrough in the investigation into serial killer Bruce McArthur. A landscaper who killed eight men from the Gay Village, McArthur had buried his victims inside five large planters at a Leaside home, a fact discovered after the dogs “indicated” — sat next to — the containers. Until then, police hadn’t found any victims.
But at nine years old, with creaky joints and a risky heart murmur, Major hung up his police badge in November, alongside his partner-turned-owner, Sgt. Derrick Gaudet. Like Gaudet, Major is adjusting to a quiet civilian life, one that sees him pursuing backyard rabbits instead of suspects, sniffing suburban lawns near his Whitby home instead of crime scenes.
“He knows what his life is now,” Gaudet, 55, said on a recent spring day, Major glued next to him on the couch, eyes fixed on his owner. “Being a big dog in a little house.”
But unlike Gaudet, after years of service to his community, Major the dog has no pension to cover escalating health-care costs, just as veterinary bills are piling up due to aging and the wear and tear of a physical job.
Instead, when police dogs retire, many of the expenses fall to the dog owner, often the former handler. Officers typically keep the dogs due to the deep bond they’ve developed and, in some cases, the difficulty of finding a new home for a skilled but high-needs animal.
“The earlier that I retired, the more I would have to pay,” Gaudet said. “I knew that.”
Although trained police dogs have become a common part of modern Canadian forces — used in everything from missing persons investigations to homicide and drug probes to bomb calls — many police services stop covering veterinary costs the day the animals leave the force, including Toronto police, the OPP and the RCMP.
Pre-existing conditions and on-the-job injuries, meanwhile, can create sky-high rates for private insurance coverage.
In the six months since retiring, Major’s veterinary care bill has climbed north of $2,000, a combination of usual expenses — the $23-per-pill monthly flea and tick medications, pricey supplements for his ligaments and joints, a $450 annual checkup — and the unexpected. In March, Major needed surgery to remove a lump on his back that, after a costly test, was deemed benign. Weeks later, the large shaved patch from surgery was still visible (drugs he takes for irritable bowel syndrome, another expense, inhibit hair growth).
Some services provide stipends to cover some veterinary fees (Ottawa police, for instance, provides $350 a year) while others have recently moved to pitch in. In 2018, Toronto police starting buying their retired dogs food for life. The same year, Halton police began offering a $500 annual stipend. Last year, Durham Regional Police initiated a “retirement benefit plan” to help cover expenses such as vaccinations and vacation lodging.
And, just last week, Peel Regional Police told the Star it would start covering annual exams and vaccinations, and make $1,000 available each year for vet or kennelling costs.
But calls for greater financial support for police dogs, often from owners, come as services face pressure to slash budgets, and covering unpredictable and sometimes exorbitant fees for aging dogs is not likely to be a top priority for police, governments or taxpayers.
“I don’t think there’s a simple answer,” said Cynthia Otto, professor of working dog sciences and sports medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted a years-long study on the health of dogs who worked to recover victims after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Many U.S. police agencies don’t cover the veterinary costs of retired working dogs, leaving a “patchwork” of coverage, she said. In some cases, forces do fundraising for the dogs’ retirement care. Some Canadian forces, too, have set up a “canine fund,” including in Vancouver and Winnipeg; the Ontario Provincial Police said it is “exploring community partnerships” to help financially support those caring for retired dogs.
“I think there’s a heartfelt ‘Oh my gosh. We should jump out there and do everything for them.’ Yeah, I would love that, but how do we do that? And who’s responsible?” Otto said.
Just two days after she adopted Ned, a retired RCMP dog, the vet bills began piling up for former RCMP superintendent Stacey Talbot.
Talbot was never a handler, but developed a respect for police dogs as she rose through the ranks, ultimately heading Alberta’s serious and organized crime unit. She saw the dogs find hypothermic hikers in Kananaskis and protect their handlers in high-stakes standoffs — “I almost get teary-eyed when I talked about this.”
When she adopted Ned, who was trained in explosives detection, she quickly learned he was suffering from a life-threatening infection from an on-the-job leg injury and needed surgery to remove old pins. It was just the first in a series of health issues that Talbot estimated led to about $50,000 in bills before Ned died in 2016, though insurance covered a significant portion.
The experience prompted Talbot to start Ned’s Wish, a first-in-Canada charity that helps cover veterinary costs for retired police and military dogs. Registered in 2019, Ned’s Wish has enrolled more than 70 dogs from forces across Canada, each one staring out from photos on the charity’s website and social media accounts, alongside impressive biographies. Eddi caught a suspect accused of killing a 15-year-old boy while driving a stolen car. Dave found a man who’d been tortured, abducted and tied up in the woods; the victim later adopted him.
Through donations, Ned’s Wish helps foot the bill for a variety of pricey interventions, including recently shelling out $700 to help pay for the back surgery for Major, who was the first Toronto police dog to register with the charity.
“We recognized there was a gap, and we’re there to fill it,” Talbot said.
She stressed, however, that she believes police services would cover health care costs of retired animals if budgets allowed. “Even though the public says, well, ‘Why aren’t you carrying it?’ then my question is: Are you prepared to pay more tax dollars?” she said.
In a statement, Toronto police spokesperson Connie Osborne said the service acknowledges “the incredible job police dogs do every day.” On top of covering the cost of food for retired dogs for life, the service ensures there are regular checkups, including just before retirement to identify and treat any issues.
“All handlers are informed at the start of their career in K9 that if they choose to adopt the dog upon retirement, the dog is then their responsibility, including the financial element,” Osborne said.
On top of the usual costs that accompany aging, police dogs are at risk of additional health issues, including any complication from on-the-job injuries like being kicked, stabbed or, in rare cases, shot. Last year, two RCMP police dogs, Gator and Jago, died after being gunned down in separate incidents in British Columbia and Alberta, respectively.
But the No. 1 problem in aging and retired police dogs is repetitive strain, said Jason Donohoe, who has been the primary care veterinarian for Toronto’s police dog unit for over a decade. Though Donohoe says there aren’t significant health differences between police dogs and non-working dogs of the same breed (usually German shepherds, Belgian Malinois or Labrador retrievers), repetitive strain leads to joint degeneration.
“You think of a dog that’s jumping in and out of the work vehicle 20 times in a shift — I don’t even know, that may be a conservative estimate — that’s a lot of jarring,” he said, noting the strain on the dog’s elbows, shoulders, hips and spine.
“I couldn’t tell you how many fences I’ve thrown him over,” Gaudet said of Major. “I bet you hundreds.”
Police dogs may also have health issues from behavioural problems. By nature, they can be “pretty high-strung,” Donohoe said, meaning the qualities that make them good at their jobs cause challenges when you kennel them. Dogs he’s treated have developed “horrible” arthritis in one elbow from continuously circling in the kennels, a way of displacing anxiety. “That’s not an uncommon behaviour,” he said.
Major definitely “has an edge,” Gaudet said. It hasn’t led to any injury, but it does make him a highly demanding charge.
Because of his size, strength and the possibility he’d give chase, only Gaudet can take him for his three-per-day walks. He can’t be around other dogs because of the risk he could bite. He gets confused when Gaudet lets him off the leash in an empty park to run around, wondering what his task is, and follows Gaudet around the house “like a shadow,” ready to take orders.
“He’s not really a pet,” Gaudet said.
But he is part of the family, Gaudet said, as a framed photo of Major as a young pup sat prominently on a nearby coffee table. After he arrived at Toronto police, Gaudet got to name his new four-legged partner, so he honoured the original Major, his grandfather’s beloved German shepherd who Gaudet loved as a boy growing up in Nova Scotia.
There was never a question he’d take Major home when he retired, no matter the expense, and he started a savings account a few years ago just for vet bills.
“We wouldn’t give him to someone else and say, ‘Yeah, it costs too much.’”
Talbot, from Ned’s Wish, said it’s that bond that makes decisions about veterinary care more fraught for handlers. Everyone loves their pet and would do anything for them, she said. But imagine if your dog had also saved your life.
She wonders if a long-term solution could come in the form of a government agency, like Veterans Affairs, setting up a fund for service animals. There is already a federal law recognizing the special status of police and service dogs, she notes.
In 2015, the federal government passed Quanto’s Law, named after an Edmonton police dog who died after he was repeatedly stabbed by a suspect fleeing police. It sets a maximum five-year jail sentence for anyone convicted of deliberately killing a police dog or service animal.
“It’s not like we have them on the books for a long period of time,” Talbot said. “It’s all about that quality of life, as opposed to quantity.”
A day in the life of Major, the retired Toronto police dog
8 a.m. Major wakes up after a long sleep. Nights are usually uneventful, though sometimes the dog will bark if he detects something outside.
One night, after Gaudet scolded him for a midnight outburst, he checked the exterior camera. Sure enough, Major had been barking at some troublemakers outside who’d been trying to open up Gaudet’s car. “He can hear stuff outside that I can’t,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be someone trying to break into my house.”
8:30 a.m. Major and Gaudet head out for the first of their three daily walks. The strolls are needed to substitute for the exercise Major once got on the job, and for more indelicate reasons. Major won’t do his business in the backyard, his way to guarantee a walk, Gaudet thinks.
Because of Major’s size, strength and the chance he might give chase at a squirrel or the sight of someone wearing a backpack, Gaudet is the only one in his family who can take him on the leash. They’ll walk for at least two to three kilometres each time. “I’m wearing out sneakers,” Gaudet said.
10 a.m. Major gets his breakfast and medication, then he lies around for a good few hours, Gaudet said. Because he’s a larger dog, he doesn’t want to do much after eating. He’ll find a spot on the floor or the bed to crash.
2 p.m. Major will head to the door. He knows it’s time for his afternoon walk. Gaudet might take him to a park and if no one else is around, let him off the leash. But he often needs encouragement to run, preferring to sniff around — “he just wants to find something,” Gaudet said. Major stills picks up items and brings them back to Gaudet, including scarves, gloves and hats. Among his favourite items these days: discarded masks. “They have a lot of odour on them,” he said.
3 p.m. More food, more pills, more naps. Major will sometimes crash in the family room near the TV or, now that it’s warmer, park himself outside in the shade of the backyard, which is a bit torn up from chasing rabbits.
10 p.m. Major stands up, stretches and lets Gaudet know it’s time for their night walk. “This is 365 days a year — rain, snow, sleet, doesn’t matter. I have to take him out,” Gaudet said. “Those three walks are his life.”https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/05/16/meet-major-he-was-a-very-good-cop-now-hes-retired-and-expensive.html
Credit: The Star