To become a police K-9, a dog has to demonstrate loyalty and superior intelligence. It’s those qualities, plus specialized training and a unique relationship with their handlers, that make police dogs so good at their job. And when a K-9 dies, especially in the line of duty, it’s heartbreaking for everyone who knew them.
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For a K-9 handler, the loss is even more difficult. It combines the grief of losing a best friend and partner with the loss of a beloved pet. To show respect and gratitude to a fallen K-9 officer, agencies and handlers often hold a police funeral for the departed dog.
Just as police departments honor a human law enforcement officer with full funerary honors, a police dog can expect the same kind of memorial for their sacrifice.
K-9 Police Funeral Traditions
“The Rocky Protocol,” created by the National Sherriff’s Association, outlines some recommendations for K-9 officer funerals. Although not all police dog funerals are the same, the Association put forth the Protocol in an attempt to help agencies honor their fallen K-9s.
While some agencies choose not to arrange funeral honors for K-9 officers, many do. And if an agency doesn’t put together a funeral on behalf of a K-9, it’s common for the dog’s handler to arrange a service, instead.
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Order of service
The order of service for a police dog funeral is similar to that of a human police funeral. Although the order of events is largely up to the host of the funeral (police officers and administrators or the handler), it typically follows an order like this:
1. Welcome guests and introduction
Guests arrive at the venue of the funeral, and the officiant welcomes them to take a seat or remain standing (if graveside).
The person leading the funeral reads or gives an opening address called an invocation.
3. Speakers, comments, and eulogies
Next, the person leading the funeral usually invites anyone who’d like to give a reading or eulogy for the K-9 to do so.
4. Presentation of the flags
A police funeral usually includes the presentation of flags, either through lowering the flags, folding the flags, or placing a flag on the coffin.
Next, the procession may make its way to the burial site or, if already there, lower the coffin into the ground. If the K-9 officer was cremated, the attendees may watch as the remains are inurned, scattered, or buried.
6. Gun salute
A police dog funeral may include a 21-gun salute, just as you might observe at a military or human police funeral.
Additionally, or in lieu of the gun salute, the funeral might include the playing of “Taps.”
Finally, the person chosen to lead the funeral will say closing remarks and let guests know about any reception that might be held afterward.
If possible, the department or handler often uses Honor Guard members at the funeral service and burial. The Honor Guard serves to protect an officer’s body from disturbance, as well as present additional honor ceremonies such as flags.
The Honor Guard’s role at a police dog funeral may include any or all of the following, as well as additional tasks:
- Guarding the police dog’s body or ashes until the burial or ash-scattering.
- Guarding the gravesite until the ceremony concludes.
- All responsibilities related to flag movement, presentation, and control.
- Performing the Gun Salute.
- Playing Taps (whether this responsibility belongs to the Honor Guard depends on the agency).
- Escorting the handler or other survivors if necessary.
Flags also play an important role at a police dog’s funeral, just as they do at any other service member’s memorial. Flag honors come in multiple different forms, described below.
Flags on flagpoles at the funeral or burial site are lowered to half-mast during a police dog funeral. The agency and the owner of the property may choose to leave the flags lowered for a longer period of time.
Flags that aren’t affixed to flag poles may be guarded by members of the Honor Guard, if in attendance.
Flag covering or display
A flag often covers the casket of the departed or stands on display near the remains during the ceremony. When this is the case, the flag can be of the state (if the K-9 served a state or local department) or of the country (if the K-9 served any federal agency).
Additionally, the flag should be folded by an Honor Guard member during the ceremony. The Honor Guard customarily presents the folded flag to the dog’s handler or survivors following the service.
The recipient of the folded flag often displays it in an honorary shadow box provided by the agency.
The 21-gun salute is reserved for officers, including K-9 officers, who died in the line of duty. Police dogs who die after their watch has ended can still have police honors at their funeral, but won’t have a 21-gun salute.
For the 21-gun salute, seven members of the Honor Guard stand a short distance away from the congregation holding rifles. Each rifle contains three blank cartridges. Upon orders from the commanding officer, the Honor Guard members fire their rifles (at the same time) three times.
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Another honor a police dog gets at their funeral is the use of pallbearers. They may be used at the discretion of the police agency or the K-9’s handler, according to the National Sherriff’s Association. An individual pallbearer may transport the coffin on a carriage, or several pallbearers may carry the casket.
Usually, members of the Honor Guard, if present, perform the pallbearer duties. The dog’s handler typically doesn’t act as pallbearer unless they specifically request the responsibility.
How Are Police Dogs Buried and Remembered?
A burial for a police dog looks very similar to a human burial with police or military honors. However, the people arranging the burial must find a suitable burial location for the K-9 officer. Some police departments have specific grounds set aside just for this purpose.
The National Sherriff’s Association recommends burial for all police dogs, even if they’re cremated. This helps prevent the accidental or intentional desecration of the remains.
If the department and the handler choose an intact burial (without cremation beforehand), they try to bury the remains as quickly as possible.
If the police dog can’t have a burial quickly, the National Sherriff’s Association recommends cremation.
Caskets and coffins
Whether the dog is buried right away or cremated first, a casket or coffin is typically used. Burial with a coffin further helps disruption to the police dog’s remains.
Another option available to the dog’s handler is scattering the ashes. The handler and the employing agency, if they’re involved in planning the funeral, must agree to an appropriate ash-scattering location.
A police dog often has a headstone or gravestone showing the dog’s birth date and date of death. The headstone might also include the date the dog’s watch began, as well as the date the K-9 officer’s watch ended. It often lists the K-9’s partner’s name and the name of their precinct, too.
After the initial funeral, or in lieu of an immediate funeral, the police department or handler may hold a memorial later on. If they chose cremation or an immediate burial and couldn’t arrange a funeral right away, a memorial is a helpful way to pay respects.
A memorial might be formal and include some of the honors listed above, but it could also be more personal and casual.
Remembering K-9 Heroes
The inspiration for the National Sherriff Association’s “Rocky Protocol” was a beloved K-9 officer named Rocky. Rocky was a 9-year-old Belgian Malinois who died from a medical condition he’d battled for over two years.
He was Corporal Craig Kirkpatrick’s partner in the Victoria County Sheriff’s Department, and he served to detect narcotics, apprehend suspects, and protect his fellow officers. From 2008 when his watch began until his death in 2013, Rocky helped seize a total of $7,364,399 worth of illegal substances and currency.
Kirkpatrick stated that “Rocky was not only a loyal partner and officer, he was also able to deter many types of criminals while remaining a trusted and loved member of my family. He will be sorely missed and never forgotten.”
His funeral and police honors struck the perfect tone for saying goodbye to a member of the team. In addition to his heartfelt memorial, including the kinds of honors listed above, Rocky’s framed picture hangs in the Victoria County Sherriff’s Office.
- “K-9 Burial Protocol.” National Sherriff’s Association. www.sheriffs.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/K9%20Burial%20Protocol.pdf
- “Police Dog Training: How are Police Dogs Trained 2020.” SitStay. sitstay.com/blogs/good-dog-blog/police-dog-training-101