How to honor fallen K-9 officers

Coleen Ellis, CT, CPLP, helped write the book for police dog funerals in Illinois. Literally.

Ellis is the founder and past co-chair of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance and past president of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, where she currently serves as an advisor. In 2004, she founded Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, the first stand-alone pet funeral home in the US.

Along the way, Ellis found herself becoming something of an authority on service dog funerals, police (or K-9) dog funerals in particular. She got into it by accident in 2006 when she organized the memorial service of a police dog who served with the Indianapolis police department.

She knew a lot of eyes were on her because nobody really knew how to organize a K-9 funeral. At the time, there were no protocols for honoring fallen service dogs. One thing that made it tricky: A K-9 service dog is considered a police officer. So their memorial services need to use some of the rites and traditions used in the funerals of human police officers, such as honor guards, the playing of taps, and (occasionally) 21-gun salutes.

It’s even tricker if the fallen K-9 was killed in the line of duty. If considered a full-fledged officer, then they have to be pronounced dead at the morgue by a coroner, who must list the cause of death. Ellis says shooting a K-9 officer “is just like shooting a two-legged officer and can be a federal offense.  

Ellis used to work in the human funeral industry so she knew something about organizing human funerals, and her current job involved pet funerals. So, she combined and adapted elements of both.

She says was called in because nobody in the department wanted to take it on. “Nobody knew how to do that,” she recalls. And maybe mostly, “They were scared to do it.”

It turns out, they were mostly afraid that the dog’s memorial service might end up attracting more media attention than the funerals of fallen human officers.

But their worries proved  groundless. “After the service, they told me, ‘We were worried that it was going to upstage the humans, and that it was going to be cheesy. You did neither,’” Ellis says. It wasn’t easy. “You have to walk a really fine line with it.” 

Sometimes, law enforcement agencies have no interest in making a big deal of a K-9 officer’s death, says Ellis, who has been told things like, “Hey, we’re sad it was a dog, but it was a dog, and we’re moving on.” 

Fortunately, those people are very much in the minority. Most departments want to do something special to honor their fallen K-9 officers.

The Indianapolis Police Department was so happy with the first job she did they called on her again a couple of years later to organize the memorial service of another K-9 officer. Around 2012, they asked her to help them write protocols for K-9 funerals, which resulted in the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police Funeral Protocols: K9 Line of Duty Death.

According to those protocols, K-9 deaths fall into three categories:

  1. Line-of-Duty Death: When a K-9 dies due to injuries sustained while actively performing their duties. This is regardless if the death is due to assaultive actions of criminals, or incurred accidentally due to the chaos of the situation sometimes called the "fog of war."
  2. Active Non-Work Related Death: When a K-9 is still a working asset, and dies outside of their normal duties due to injury or conditions not related to their assignments in any way.
  3. Retired K-9 Death: When a K-9 who has been formally retired from service, dies for any reason.

The protocols have since become the standard for honoring K-9 officers who’ve died in the line of duty in Illinois. Ellis says the association has been actively working to disseminate the protocols to other departments in other states, but she doesn’t know how widespread their use is.

One things sure: There aren’t many protocols out there like it.

Perhaps the closest is “The Rocky Protocol,” created by Victoria County Sheriff’s Office in Victoria County, Texas, in 2013. Named after a 9-year-old Belgian Malinois K-9 officer who joined the department in 2008  whose duties included narcotics detection, tracking, suspect apprehension, and officer protection, the protocols were created when Rocky died and are currently being disseminated by the National Sherriff’s Association.

Many of the Rocky protocols echo the Illinois protocols, including the inclusion of honor guards, processions, and pallbearers.

Ellis has also overseen the funerals of other working dogs who aren’t classified as officers, such as search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs, and says protocols for their funerals aren’t as ceremonial as K-9 funerals, but she still makes sure the dogs are properly honored:  “I just took the same protocols and dialed them down a bit.”

However, one big gap in honoring service dogs still exists: Funeral protocols for personal service dogs such as seeing-eye and therapy dogs. If there is a protocol for personal service dogs, Ellis says, “I have not found it.” 

Ellis recalls one funeral for a K-9 officer who was slain in the line of duty that attracted a huge crowd of mourners, more than 700 people. There was one moment that gave her goose bumps.

Dozens of human K-9 handlers were in the audience and they all kept their dogs in the car until, at a certain point in the service, they got their dogs and formed a procession past the urn that held the slain officer’s ashes: “There were K-9 dogs, SAR dogs, drug detection dogs, any kind of working dog the department had.”

Ellis estimates 70 dogs participated in the procession. “And those are sassy dogs right? [Yet] not one bark came out of those dogs.”

The scene brought tears to 1,400 eyes.

“It was beautiful,” Ellis says, “just beautiful.” 

Would you know how to treat a police dog? Or a highly trained bomb-sniffing dog? AAHA just released the 2021 AAHA Working, Assistance, and Therapy Dog Guidelines, the first ever report of its kind to guide how we care for the dogs who care for us.

Photo Credit: © Richlegg/E+ via Getty Images Plus

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