Well-earned retirement: K-9 dog ‘Rookie’ calls it a career

Rookie has retired after seven years of Wicomico County service.

In the chaos following an early-morning May 2016 assault in Fruitland, deputies from the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office arrived on the scene to assist Fruitland Police. Among those responding were Deputy First Class Bobbi Jo Lewis and her partner.

The victim’s arm was partially severed in the assault.

Fortunately, a motorist driving by had spotted the victim, Stephen Byrd, hiding under a trailer.

A man holding a machete was seen standing near the trailer. That man was later identified as Gregory Sterling Davis.

Once police arrived, Byrd was rushed to the hospital. The suspect, Sterling, had fled into nearby woods.

Deputy Lewis dispatched her partner, Rookie, to look for items linked to the crime scene.

Rookie is a K-9, one of seven dogs allocated to the Sheriff’s Office.

“Yes, he is my partner,” Lewis said.

Assigned to road patrol in Wicomico County, Rookie is Lewis’ second K-9 partners. A Belgian Malinois and German Shepherd mix, Rookie made his way in 2014 to the Lower Shore from Czechoslovakia, with a quick layover in Tarheel, N.C., where he received his initial training in detecting odors and tracking.

Lewis went to North Carolina and worked with Rookie. Once she returned to Wicomico County with her new partner, she taught him to find articles bearing human odor that have been tossed down.

“Article searches are helpful when tracking someone,” Lewis said. “I also trained Rookie in specific commands and other equipment, including collars and harnesses.”

Deputy First Class Bobbi Jo Lewis and her partner, Rookie.

Much the same way people wear uniforms or other specific attire for their jobs, K-9s learn to recognize specific collars and harnesses that tell them ahead of time what tasks they will be asked to perform.

By the time Lewis and Rookie answered that early-morning call in Fruitland, they were inseparable, together 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That morning, Rookie found everything Sterling had tried to shed as he attempted to escape. They were not just tossed onto the ground. Rookie found the machete and laid down on the spot.

By the time he was apprehended that same morning, the suspect, Sterling, had changed his clothes and buried the bloodied items, which Rookie also found.

Sterling was arrested by Fruitland Police.

Another time, a suspect ran straight to nearby police units, rather than face Rookie alone.

“Rookie was with me for a 10-80, a motor vehicle theft,” Lewis said. “The driver and passenger fled. The passenger saw Rookie and surrendered, then Rookie helped get the driver into custody. Perimeter units said they could hear the K-9 coming and the suspect ran to those units and surrendered.”

That was the exciting side of Rookie’s work with the Sheriff’s Office. But Rookie enjoyed his public relations duties as well.

“We do demos for schools all the time,” Lewis said. “My son is in JROTC at Wi-Hi. I sometimes go over and spend my day off there for a drug class. I take Rookie for the drug demo. He’s one of the friendlier of our K-9s.”

According to Capt. Babe Wilson, Field Operations Commander for the Sheriff’s Office, K-9s usually retire from active duty at age 10.

“We like for our dogs to have time for a good retirement,” said Wilson, a former K-9 handler himself.

But Rookie is retiring early for health reasons. He’s 7½ but has experienced back problems.

Now, Rookie will spend the rest of his life with Lewis, who lives on a farm in eastern Wicomico County.

“He’ll be a house pet, a farm dog,” she said. “I have six other dogs, plus horses and chickens on the farm.”

Lewis paid $1 to the county for the privilege of providing Rookie his forever home.

“It means so much to us in the community to have these opportunities, through support from nonprofits and budgetary allotments from the county,” said Wilson. “Our department has more active K-9s than any other Lower Shore group.”

Wilson said with Rookie’s retirement, the Sheriff’s Office has five active K-9s – the most of any other Lower Shore agency.

“We’re allotted seven dog slots,” he said. The sixth K-9s handler is out on medical leave. There are no immediate plans to replace Rookie.

Rookie didn’t receive a big retirement bash with a gold watch.

“Let’s just say he’s been eating steak and chicken a lot,” said Wilson.

Even though Rookie will be waiting for Lewis each day when she comes home, it’s not going to be the same.

“The hardest part of being a handler is when the dog retires,” she said. “There are changes to routines and patterns, and missing the companionship and relationship with the dog.”

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