Sean Kirst: A police dog runs to the river, in fierce loyalty to missing officer - The Buffalo News

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Sean Kirst: A police dog runs to the river, in fierce loyalty to missing officer

Officer Craig Lehner brought his dog Shield with him Friday, when he drove to the Niagara River for training with other police divers. That was standard and vigilant behavior, said  Lt. Salvatore Losi, commanding officer of the department's K-9 unit.

Dog and master were all but inseparable, and Lehner wanted Shield to be nearby if they were called to some emergency.

So Shield remained in his air conditioned kennel, in the back of a police vehicle, while Lehner began his underwater exercise. Lehner was a skilled and passionate handler, Losi said, and Shield had learned to wait patiently for Lehner to return.

Yet it was Losi and several other officers in his unit, hours later, who had to open the door and allow the 85-pound German Shepherd to get out.

"It was kind of spooky," Losi said. "We all got tears in our eyes and choked up a little. When we opened the door, he knocked us out of the way, myself and a couple of other handlers, and he ran down to the river and started running back and forth, searching."

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The dog somehow understood.  Lehner – an Army National Guard veteran of deployments to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay – disappeared into the Niagara River Friday during a training session with other police divers.

A furious search involving local, federal, state and Canadian agencies continued Saturday. As soon as he received word Friday that Lehner was missing, Losi and his K-9 officers hurried to Broderick Park, near Niagara Street, to aid in the effort. They returned to the park at 7 a.m. Saturday, when the search resumed.

Lehner earned powerful devotion from the other five members of the K-9 unit,  Losi said.

"What I would say is that many of us are near the end of our careers," said Losi, 55, "and we all looked at him as our future. The challenge now will be finding someone to live up his standards. He already trained one dog, and he's a guy who would have trained many more dogs in his career."

As for Shield, Losi dropped the dog Saturday at a kennel often used by the K-9 unit. Police dogs are independent and strong-willed, Losi said, and it is difficult for one officer to watch another's dog, because the animals typically won't get along.

Lehner, a 9-year veteran of the department, has worked in the K-9 unit for just over a year.

"He was the No. 1 candidate in our selection process," Losi said, "and it was one of those times when you put a round peg into a round hole."

Losi described Lehner as a relentless worker who developed a powerful bond with his dog. Two weeks ago, Losi said, Lehner put Shield through some tests with Niagara Regional Police officers in Ontario, experts who handle recertification of police dogs.

"The trainer called to say, 'Wow,'" Losi said. "This dog is amazing."

That praise, by extension, was directed at Lehner. With the K-9 unit, he found a job that seemed to fit him perfectly. Losi said Shield was used primarily for locating narcotics, but the dog could also "find a bad guy hiding in a house."

Lehner enjoyed the job so much that he told Losi he had no other goal or ambition in the department.

"This was a guy who didn't need much supervision," Losi said.

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He and Lehner often worked different shifts. The last time Losi saw him was last week, when they both stopped to get gasoline for their police vehicles at the department pumps.

"I asked him if he needed anything," Losi said, "and he said to me: 'I'm good.'"

"You are good," Losi responded.

The officer endured  personal tragedy earlier this year, Losi said, when Lehner's brother died in a construction accident.

Lehner took some bereavement time, and then returned to do his work with typical excellence, Losi said.

What Losi remembers about Lehner, beyond all else, is his devotion to his dog. He said Lehner recently acquired a new home in greater Buffalo, mainly to provide more yard space for Shield, a 4-year-old dog born in the Netherlands.

That loyalty existed from the moment Lehner saw the dog for the first time. He and Losi drove together to a training center near Rochester, which raises and sells the animals.

"He was over the moon," Losi said.

Police dogs can cost $8,000 or more, he said. When the animals are the gifts of private contributors, the Buffalo police – out of appreciation at the gift – typically names the dog in honor of the donor.

Yet Lehner was in an unusual situation. Because the department purchased the dog directly, Lehner was free to give the animal whatever name he wished.

Losi and Lehner were driving home when Lehner made his suggestion. He asked Losi if he could call the dog "Shield" in honor of Buffalo Police Officer James Shields, who was killed in a 2002 car crash in Buffalo while responding to a robbery call.

Losi, who's been in charge of the unit for nine years, said naming dogs for fallen officers is a tradition in other departments, but it was the first time he's aware of it happening in Buffalo.

"The idea totally came from him," Losi said. Lehner read up on Shields' life, to the extent of knowing the kind of music he enjoyed. He placed Shields' family on his invitation list for a training graduation ceremony in Niagara Falls, Ont., a big moment for any officer who works with a police dog.

Jeannette Shields, 82, mother of James Shields, attended that ceremony. In a telephone conversation Saturday, she said Lehner's devotion has lasting resonance for the family.

"It means officers are never truly forgotten," she said Saturday.

The same thought occurred Friday to Losi, when a dog named Shield - with just one goal - ran straight to the river.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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