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RED BANK: POLICE DOGS WALK INTO RETIREMENT

Highlights of the K9 retirement ceremony. (Video by Brian Donohue)

By BRIAN DONOHUE

Tails wagged. A crowd gathered. A giant American Flag swayed in the breeze from a red hook and ladder fire truck. And a box of “meaty taste” Milk Bones sat on the asphalt by the wheels of a police SUV, its lights flashing. 

Amid pomp fit for a pooch, Hunter and Eko, the two dogs comprising the Red Bank Police Department’s K-9 unit, walked out of headquarters for the last time Friday. 

Hunter, the now retired K9 unit dog, and his fellow retiring counterpart Eko, below. (Photos by Brian Donohue. Click to enlarge.)

Led by their human police officer handlers, the two Belgian Malinois headed into retirement prompted by two things that seem to eventually catch up with us all: old age and a changing world.

“These dogs have been great to us,” Captain Mike Frazee told redbankgreen in an interview before the retirement ceremony at Borough Hall. “We’re all sad to see them go.”

Hunter was the first of the police department’s two crimefighting canines, joining the squad in March, 2015. He is credited with aiding in a long list of arrests. But he is just a few months away from the 10-year-old retirement age that Frazee said is the standard for K-9 police work.

But for Hunter, and more so for the younger dog Eko, state-level policy changes also pushed the borough to phase out the use of the dogs.

Both dogs are trained to sniff out narcotics, primarily marijuana. With the legalization of pot by an amendment to the state constitution in 2021, a huge part of their skill set is now unneeded. 

Another shift occurred the same year when the state Attorney General’s office revised guidelines on the use of force by police, which included new limits on the employment of canines. 

The new rules prohibited their use against those who are resisting arrest but do not pose a threat to an officer or others. 

They also prohibit the visible presence of canines for crowd control purposes at peaceful demonstrations, and the deployment of canines against a crowd, except to respond to a threat of death or serious bodily injury to a member of the public or to an officer.

“Really, what changed our mind was when the attorney general’s office changed the guidelines in 2021 and plus the legalization of marijuana has put us in a spot because these dogs are specifically trained in marijuana and drug detection,” Frazee said.

The two dogs have been adopted by their longtime handlers. Eko will live with Patrolman Tanner Shea. 

Hunter will live with Patrolman Stan Balmer, who credits the dog with saving his life in a 2016 incident involving a suspect with a knife.

Adjusting to retirement might not be easy.

“Problems set in… when this people-oriented dog is underemployed,’’ reads the American Kennel club description of the Belgian Malinois breed.

As Hunter panted and pranced and struggled to stay still before his retirement ceremony, Balmer said he’s noticed the dog seems jumpier since stopping formal K-9 duties last month.

“He wants to work,’ Balmer said.

The borough council has approved a stipend for their lifelong health care. Fins ’n Feathers, the pet shop down the street from police headquarters, has offered a lifetime discounts on dog food.

Frazee said the borough’s K-9 unit is now dormant, but not necessarily defunct. 

Any new dog, however, would be trained in different techniques and in the detection of different kinds of drugs besides marijuana. 

“The program’s not dead,” she said.  “We will look at other avenues. Maybe get another dog.”

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