April 16, 2014

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Vermilion K-9 Andy remembered as loyal dog who loved to work

VERMILION — They say that a dog is man’s best friend. For former K-9 handler Amherst police Sgt. Mark Cawthon that saying is true.

For 14 years, Cawthon trained police dogs Hans, Bandit and Csar. Cawthon formed a strong bond with each of the animals, but when an unexpected illness took the lives of Bandit, in August 2010, and Hans in November 2004, Cawthon said he had difficulty accepting the losses.

“You spend almost 24/7 with these dogs,” he said. “You spend more time with them than with your wife and kids.”

Both dogs were 7 years old when they passed away.

“I still get emotional talking about it today,” Cawthon said. “Unfortunately, dogs live too short of lives.”

On Saturday, Cawthon paid his respects to Andy, a German shepherd who worked for the Vermilion police and was trained by Vermilion Cpl. Scott Holmes. Andy died at the age of 4 — young, even in dog years.

Andy was completing a training exercise Wednesday in Sandusky, when, for unknown reasons, he jumped over a small wall, falling several feet to his death. Per protocol, the Vermilion Police Department held a funeral for the dog at Vermilion Elementary School.

Vermilion Police Department’s K-9 program began in the 1980s, according to Police Chief Chris Hartung. Since that time, the department has had four police dogs, only one of whom is still alive today, although it has retired from the force.

The dogs are used for tracking and for drug enforcement. Hartung said the Police Department will begin looking for a new dog to fill Andy’s spot Monday, but the funeral was held to help Holmes deal with the death of his friend and co-worker.

“It’s part of the grieving process,” Hartung said. “With a K-9 officer, it’s much more of an emotional relationship than with a household pet.”

Hartung added that due to the extended amount of time handlers spend training and working with the dogs, close bonds are formed.

“These dogs can save you,” he said. “These dogs have to listen to you sing along with the radio.”

Hartung spoke at Andy’s funeral, and several K-9s and their handlers attended to pay their respects. Speakers described Andy as a “loyal companion” who loved to work.

“Andy was a police officer like us. He just had more legs and more hair,” said an officer during the memorial.

Andy was also friendly and good with children, according to Michelle Fiegelist.

Fiegelist, who works as a deputy clerk at Vermilion Municipal Court, said Andy was a frequent visitor.

“Scott would bring Andy in all the time,” she said. “Andy had his own box of dog biscuits.”

Fiegelist described Andy as a sweet and beautiful dog. Vermilion was a safer place with Andy patrolling the city, she said.

Hartung said Holmes has had difficulty dealing with the loss of his former partner. He said Holmes was chosen to train Andy because he was highly motivated and active, qualities needed to handle a police dog.

Cawthon said he has witnessed Holmes work with Andy, and Holmes was qualified for the job.

“His heart was in it. He was developing into a great handler,” he said.

Cawthon said switching to a new police dog will be difficult at first, but it is important to “get back on the horse.”

“It’s almost like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’ ” Cawthon said. “You have to realize, though, that the dog gives you different feelings and memories.”

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com.