When a K-9 dies in the line of duty
To K-9 handler Doug Lewis, his dogs are his partners. It eats at him that he couldn’t protect Chip
An acclaimed poet, Rachel Rose never expected to spend her nights careening along for the ride while the police teams search for armed suspects. Yet once she decided to meet the people who devoted their lives to police K9 units, she found herself signing up for ride-alongs, training runs and other challenges that these courageous police officers and their K-9s face on a daily basis. The following is excerpted from “The Dog Lover Unit: Lessons in Courage from the World's K9 Cops” and can be purchased here.
The sad truth of police work is that both dogs and officers sometimes die in the line of duty. In my time on the road, I meet a few officers whose dogs had been killed on the job. The first is Doug Lewis. Several RCMP dog handlers have mentioned Doug Lewis, and I’m nervous about meeting this survivor face-to-face. My fears are put at ease when he answers the door with a tiny Maltese/Yorkie puppy nestled in his muscular arms. I knew Lewis was retired; I just didn’t know he’d be so young and so fit. Tall and sun-bronzed, with dark hair, he and his wife, Christine, look like they have stepped out of the pages of a fitness magazine.
He holds the pup as I sit down, while two very affectionate cats and another dog trot out to greet me. One of the cats keeps jumping on my laptop as I take notes, her tail curling over my arm. Even though his house has the good company of cats and dogs, there are no more police dogs in Doug Lewis’s life, and probably never will be again.
“So,” I ask, “how did you get into policing?”
“By grade three, I wanted to be a police officer. My dad was in the marine section of the RCMP, but that didn’t encourage me for police work. I found Dad’s job very boring. I went out for many hours on Dad’s boat. When I was thirteen, my mom took me aside and said, ‘Dad doesn’t want to take you on the boat, because you can’t sit still like your brother.’ It was true.
“The big influence on me as a kid was my older brother. He was a top athlete. He used to beat me up lots. It was, ‘I’m going to make you tough.’
“One time my brother was beating me up. Mum had hit him so many times with a broomstick, so she got a frying pan and hit him between the shoulder blades to get his attention. Mum had to hit him twice.”
I think about my sons, and try to picture anything remotely similar to this situation. My imagination fails me. But Lewis doesn’t seem fazed by what he went through. It’s obvious after five minutes of conversation that Doug Lewis and his brother were hell on wheels as boys. When they were young, they were called The Crazy Brothers. It’s clear they both earned the name in those early years. “My brother choked me once on the ferry until I passed out. After a while, we had it out and he never challenged me since.” It took joining the RCMP to channel that intense youthful drive.
“My brother joined the RCMP four years before I did. He got out of high school and right into the RCMP. I wasn’t the greatest kid to be going in. I had a lot of traffic violations. I had a lead foot. I wasn’t violent, just a teenage boy showing off. My dad was stationed on Salt Spring Island. Well, it was two days after I got my driver’s license, I was doing donuts and hit a pole.
“Later I got involved in rollovers and other traffic violations. When I actually put my application to the RCMP, I was asked, ‘And how do you explain this?’
“ ‘Due to immaturity, sir.’ I was rejected the first time, due to eyesight. I thought my world had come to an end. I tried exercising my eyes. I stopped wearing glasses to strengthen my eyes. I did that for two weeks. So it was one and a half years later, I was working at a lumber mill, pulling off green wood, I get this phone call, ‘Are you still interested?’ ”
“So that’s when you joined the RCMP?”
“Yes. You had to grow up—except you still got to drive fast. I put in eight years of service. I was pushing the idea of the antiterrorist team. At this point, Bill Sweeney was the assistant commissioner. He said, ‘Doug, you want the antiterrorist team, you’re in.’
“Then the dog man shows up a week later. I said, ‘So you get to hunt people, drive your own wagon, the dog’s your partner?’ I said, ‘Can I go to Peace River and train with you?’ I spent four days at this dog man’s house. I’ll never forget the first bite. I was scared, but I was excited. I just couldn’t get enough. I wish I would have known that before.
“I helped to raise five dogs. You pay for your own gas, you do twelve-hour shifts, then it’s nighttime, you take the dog out for a walk quickly. Then you lay tracks and get bit.”
“How did you find the strength to do what you had to do?” “You don’t feel invincible, because you know people get hurt, but you feel ‘I’m not going to get hurt out of this, I’ll come out of it okay.’ When I first got into the RCMP, I only wanted to catch bad guys. I thought my dog, Reiker, was invincible. He was one hundred and seven pounds of solid German shepherd. We were catching people left, right, and center. Anybody with weapons, he’d take them down. “As time got along, I realized, ‘Dogs are like a bad date, they never leave you.’ They are always there. With Reiker, he was handler-soft, he’d go on his belly if I yelled at him, but with everyone else he’d go bonkers. I remember people saying, ‘My god, he’s got a bite like an alligator.’ Once on a training, I saw a guy put on two arm guards.
I said, ‘What are you doing?’
“ ‘I’ve heard about your dog’s reputation,’ he told me. Some of the quarries would scream because of the pressure of the bite.”
Lewis keeps talking. The cat curls softly around my arm.
“Once we were out on a call and someone shouted to me, ‘Doug, he ran down that alley!’ So I go, I’m circling the dog, but he’s not picking anything up. I soon realized that it was the next alley over. We go, I’m yelling at my dog, he’s down on his belly, then I circled him again. I realized boom, he gave it to me. We got the guy. I realized my dog will give it to me if it’s there. I don’t need to yell. You can’t force your dog. You have to make it fun. Make it bubbly.”
Make it bubbly. That expression stays with me. The hardest work in the world, where lives are at stake, and to get your dog to do his best work, you have to make it all a big game.
People sought out Doug Lewis for training advice when they were raising dogs and working as quarries, hoping to be chosen as police dog handlers.
“I wanted to see a real commitment to dog services. You gotta be a go-getter.”
Doug keeps the stories coming. “Once we were on a domestic violence call. It had nothing to do with dogs. Her husband had threatened her before he left, said he’d come back and kill her, then he drove away and she called us. My dog started walking around the house and all of a sudden I see the tail wagging. Then I hear this SCREAM! My dog’s got the guy in the shoulder blade. Her husband had come back. He had a gun lined up to shoot the policeman that was coming up the walk. I had shivers going down my spine. The other cop said, ‘That dog saved my life.’ ”
Lewis has seen more than anyone should of the worst of human nature.
“Once we were called about this nineteen-year-old raping a seventeen-year-old at knifepoint. The victim came running out of the bushes by the White Spot Restaurant. She was all torn up. My dog ran across to the other side of the road. The guy was hiding there, with his pants still half done up. We got him, and then we backtracked and found the weapon.”
Now I’m the one with shivers going down my spine. It’s not hard to picture the guy, crouching in the ditch with his pants undone, the girl crawling out of the bushes at White Spot after being raped. It’s not hard to picture the knife held to her throat, then cast into the grass as the guy tried to escape. What if the dog hadn’t been there, and the rapist had gotten away? And even though he was caught, what about the rest of her life, all the days that come after, with the memory of the knife against her throat?
I had heard what happened to Doug Lewis from other cops. When I ask him about it, though, he gets up and leaves the room. He comes back and hands me his official police statement. I read it carefully. It seems like such a nonevent: a suspect who fled without paying for gas, and refused to stop when the cops pursued him. Doug, who was off duty at the time, was buying dog food at Buckerfield’s in Chilliwack. He arrived at the scene with his dog Chip, wearing nothing but jeans and a T-shirt, unarmed but ready to track. He had two uniformed members to back him up, both members of ERT, the Emergency Response Team.
Dog handlers move much faster than anyone else. This can be a problem for those who want to keep up, even if they are exceptionally fit ERT officers providing cover for a K9 team during a pursuit. The dog teams often move at a run, and seldom slower than a trot. Once the dog is on a scent, he is in full pursuit mode.
Twice the ERT members who were providing backup to Lewis yelled at him to slow down, which he did. But when he didn’t hear from them again, he followed Chip through the brush at a rapid pace, assuming his backup team was right behind him.
When he found the suspect and told him to surrender, the man refused. Chip was sent in to subdue him, which he did, grabbing his left arm. This is where the statement gets hard to read. I quote it directly:
To my disbelief I saw the suspect come around with his right hand holding a knife. Without anything said or any hesitation the suspect stabbed “Chip” in the neck area. The suspect then pulled back to stab him again and I saw the blood squirt out of his neck. I then dropped the long line I was attached to “Chip” and started to charge the suspect so I could stop him from stabbing him again. The suspect saw me charge at him and he stopped stabbing at “Chip” and started running towards me. “Chip” then came off the suspect and came back to me and circled around me and charged at the suspect again. As “Chip” had circled around me he dragged the twenty foot leash behind him and ended up tying my legs together so I couldn’t move out of the way of the suspect swinging the knife around. The suspect ended up knocking me down to the ground wailing the knife at my face and chest area. I tried several times to block the blows but he kept stabbing at me. At one point I felt the knife go into my chest and at the same time I felt “Chip” biting my upper right thigh area. I knew he was doing some damage to my face when I felt the blood going into my right eye. I did manage to grab the knife blade and held on tight to it as he was yelling at me “I’m not a killer, I’m not a killer.” I responded to that comment that he wasn’t showing me a good example of this.
Just as children sometimes lash out at their parents, police dogs will sometimes bite or attack their handlers in times of extreme stress or pain. This is what Chip did after he’d been stabbed. The brutal fight continued. Doug Lewis wrote: “He kept on trying to punch me and was yelling at me ‘go out, go out, let me put you out.’ ” But Doug kept fighting, and kept on yelling for Nigel, one of the cover officers from ERT. Finally, the suspect demanded Doug’s money, his wallet, pager, and keys, and then ran off into the woods.
I went over to “Chip” and saw that his eyes were glassed over and his tongue was hanging out the side of his mouth and I could barely see any blood coming out of his neck area. I then took my t-shirt off and tried to stop whatever bleeding there was left coming out and as I looked at his head he let out a gasp and there was nothing else there . . . I wiped the blood from my watch and it was 3:10 p.m.
I put the sworn statement down and meet Doug’s eyes. It’s a heavy moment.
“What was going through your head at that point?”
“We learned that whenever you are in a situation, don’t give up. As it was happening, I’m not thinking of quitting. I’m thinking, ‘How do I subdue this guy? How do I get him to stop stabbing me?’ Apparently Nigel could hear me, though I couldn’t hear him. He was running through the brush, trying to find me, and he couldn’t. He kept hearing me and wasn’t able to help.”
At this point, Doug Lewis knew he didn’t have much time left before he bled to death from the wounds in his head and chest. But he made one last attempt to save his own life. He was able to slide down the brush until he made his way to a road. Several cars drove around Lewis, refusing to stop as he tried to wave them down, covered in blood. Finally a driver stopped and drove him to the hospital.
“My stabbing, I got nine knife wounds and my dog got killed. The guy who did it, he got ten months in the mental institution. Then the media called to tell me that he’s being released less than ten months later. I was frustrated. I was mad. I was told he would at least do a few years, but ten months later he’s released to his parents. This is proof we have a legal system, but we certainly don’t have a justice system. I said this, and it went on the news. I was called in by the Superintendent of the RCMP district. He told me, ‘You can’t say that.’
“I put my hand out and said, ‘Slap me, because that’s all you’re going to get.’ ” Nobody, no matter what their rank, can stop Doug Lewis from calling it as he sees it.
“After all this, the guy applied for a firearms certificate. His application was rejected. Everyone knew what he did to a police officer, and that he killed a police dog.”
At times, as he tallies his losses, Lewis tries to joke, but I can tell that the pain is fresh. The price he paid was so high. To Doug Lewis, his dogs are his partners. It eats at him that he couldn’t protect Chip.
Lewis lost Chip, lost his first marriage, and nearly lost his life, but he fought his way back from every loss. “They gave me all the time in the world to heal, but I couldn’t sit still for very long. I located another dog, Zack, and in less than a month I was back in Innisfail at kennels training with him. As I was sitting in the bushes after laying a track for one of the other fellows, I looked down at my hands where the stitches had come out, and I asked myself, ‘Should I be here?’ It was a very strange feeling, but I shook it off and continued my training. I tried so hard not to think of Chip. He appeared every night in my dreams, and still does.”
Lewis is still on that long path toward recovery, though he won’t work as a police officer again. He talks openly of his experience and his mistakes, so that others can learn from his ordeal.
When I said good-bye, Doug was holding his tiny puppy, Nika, to his muscular chest, cuddling her as she snuggled against him. Nika closed her eyes, snoozing in the crook of his arm, completely secure in her world in a way that her owner never can be again.