EASTON — Loyal. Vigilant. Heroic.

Those three words are engraved on a monument in the center of the only cemetery of its kind in Maryland. They are words picked by Maryland State Troopers to describe the K9 partners who served with them in the Maryland State Police. Those partners now have a restored and dignified final resting place in Easton.

The cemetery also symbolizes the deep respect of the handlers who depended on them and the abiding love of the families who took them into their hearts as well as their homes.

Maryland State Police gathered with colleagues, supporters, family and friends to rededicate the state’s only K9 cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 1, at the Easton Barracks.

The barracks also is the site of the state’s first K9 training center. It has since moved to the western shore, but it was planned and instituted in 1961 by the late L.G. “Gerry” Webb, the first state trooper trained for canine work. His K9 partner Smokey is buried in the cemetery just steps from where he was the first graduate of the MSP K-9 Dog Corps Program.

Webb’s daughter Jeanne Smith of Trappe was pleased with the cemetery rededication, “It’s been a great, great day,” she said. Not only did it commemorate her dad’s work — he also established the cemetery in 1968 — it memorialized the K9 partner that was also her pet. “Smokey was my dog,” she said.

For the rededication ceremony, Smith created a poster board covered with newspaper clippings and photos of Smokey and her father’s work. “My mom saved everything,” she said.

More than 150 people, most of whom played a role in the restoration project, gathered at the barracks for the ceremony that memorialized the K9 troopers, honored the dogs who currently serve and celebrated the cemetery’s restoration.

The ceremony featured remarks by Centreville Barracks Commander Lt. Robert Connolly who spearheaded the restoration, and Maryland State Police Alumni Association President Capt. Jack Howard; a blessing by the Rev. James Nash, pastor of Saints Peter & Paul parish; and bagpipe music by retired Sr. Trooper Bernard “Bud” Donovan of Newark, Del.

Donovan handled six police dogs, but only Sabo, a Dutch shepherd he worked with for five years, is buried in Easton.

“Having Sabo there with other K9s who served the state of Maryland — it just gives you a good feeling, plus it’s going to be there forever,” Donovan said. “With the work Rob did on it, it makes it really nice. It really pays tribute to the work they did for the state.”

Donovan, who played the bagpipes while walking through the burial ground during the ceremony, said the cemetery overhaul was “long overdue. Nobody took the helm and drove it forward like Rob did. Without his input and dedication, it probably would never have happened.”

Also attending were various military K9 handlers, members of local law enforcement agencies, and relatives of state troopers whose K9 partners were also family pets.

Howard praised Connolly for his vision and dedication in seeing the two-year project through from start to finish.

“Lt. Rob asked us to help him (with the project) and we were happy to do it,” Howard said. Connolly had invited him to visit the site before the clean-up began.

“Rob had said it was a mess,” Howard said. “You could hardly call it a mess — it was a disaster.”

The burial ground had been neglected for years before Lt. Robert Connolly was promoted to lieutenant and assigned as barrack commander in 2015. When he instituted a barrack clean-up project he realized a K9 cemetery existed on the property. It was literally a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” he said, and the conditions were “deplorable and offensive.”

“You can’t take care of your own like that,” Connolly said. In the 1990s, a group of Vietnam veterans cleaned up the cemetery, but it fell into disrepair again.

The mission was personal for Connolly, who had been a K9 handler for several years. His wife, Sgt. Melissa Connolly, and her dog Akita are currently assigned to the unit.

Two years ago, Rob Connolly began recruiting a team and raising funds to restore the cemetery. Along with MSPAA, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 69 rallied to help. He cited a long list of volunteers and benefactors in the 10-page rededication ceremony program.

The first part of the project was the task of reconstructing a roster of all the dogs buried in the cemetery, and the names of their handlers, but there was no documents on file and no map.

“Tree limbs, debris and overgrowth completely covered the site,” Connolly wrote in the program booklet. “The fifty-year-old brass nameplates were indiscernible and cinder-block headstones were broken.” Some nameplates were simply missing. After a year of research, the names of the 17 dogs buried in the original cemetery were identified.

In August 2017, 40 volunteers descended on the site of the old cemetery and in one day removed the brush, debris and branches. Retired troopers, Boy Scouts, Young Marines and residents of surrounding neighborhoods pitched in to help.

A K9 cemetery as a place for handlers to visit their dogs is “very, very important,” Melissa Connolly said. We have Dulaney Valley (Memorial Gardens) for our fallen heroes, our fellow law enforcement.”

“You may not always live in the house you’re in, and when you move you want to have access to them, so that’s one of the best parts about the cemetery, I think,” Rob Connolly said.

Today, engraved stones mark the 21 graves in the military-style cemetery shaded by old-growth trees. The red chip gravel stone symbolizes “the blood shed in service to the state,” Rob Connolly said. A bronze German shepherd bearing the K9 Corps badge guards the entrance to the Rainbow Bridge over to the cemetery. A sign states simply, “Maryland State Police Canine Cemetery established 1968 — restored 2018.”

The poem “The Rainbow Bridge” is also on display. It “reminds us that these dogs are more than tools, they’re our partners,” Rob Connolly said at the ceremony. “They’re our MSP family.”

“The whole idea of a cemetery is where all the dogs can be in one pack,” Rob Connolly said. “Other than one dog buried at the Centreville barrack — he’s represented by one headstone that reads ‘K9 Bogey resting at Barrack S’ — he’s the only other state police dog buried at any other state police facility. Every other dog is either with their handler at their house, or waiting to go with (their handlers), or it’s at the K9 cemetery. A lot of guys didn’t even know that the cemetery existed. And then when the word got out, I had four people come forward, and they were like, ‘Can I put my dog there?’ “

“You know, these are troopers here — four-legged troopers, but they’re troopers,” Connolly said. Although the dogs are often in harm’s way, no MSP K9s have been killed in the line of duty.

Retired Tfc. Steve Miller’s dog Dino II is buried in the cemetery. His son and wife accompanied him to the ceremony and placed the Maryland state flower and a dog biscuit on Dino’s grave.

Shortly after entering the MSP in 1973, Miller served in the K9 unit from late 1974 until 1982. “He was my only dog, and when I left, I took Dino with me. He developed a heart murmur, and I had to feed him ground beef and rice to get all the fat off him. After about eight months of treatment, he died in my arms (in 1985). The vet couldn’t get there in time. I had him cremated, and he stayed in the house.”

“And then Rob called me. And what an amazing job Rob has done,” Miller said. “I was so honored that my dog can finally have his place amongst the pack.”

‘An amazing bond’

Police dogs don’t take an oath to protect the public, but the cemetery is important to their handlers because the the bond between them and their dogs is like no other.

“My retired partner worked the road with me for five years – Zim passed after we had him for 12, and I still have his collar, his badge, a shadowbox in my office that hangs on the wall for him,” Rob Connolly said. He even has a paw print tattoo with the image of Zim’s face figured into the design.

“The relationship you have with your working dog, especially a patrol dog, is — you’re out there lots of times, in the middle of the woods at night searching for someone who may be armed and may harm you — and your life and other troopers’ lives depend on this dog,” Donovan said. “So, as you’re going through training you develop a bond, but it’s not until you get out on the street that you really realize how much you depend on this dog. I mean, it’s an amazing bond.”

“With a pet, you just come home and play ball with them and stuff: he’s happy to see you, you’re happy to see him,” Donovan said. “But with a working dog, you depend on that dog, and that dog depends on you for the praise, the food, taking care of them, making sure they’re OK. It’s a strong bond. It’s a bond like working with a partner for 10 years.”

“To be a K9 handler always meant something special,” Miller said. “Back in the early days, … there wasn’t many K9 handlers. It was an honor to be a K9 handler, and most of the troopers in the barracks had a lot of respect for us because we were their backup, and they knew it. If they got in trouble, they’d just call for the K9 man, whereas the administration didn’t know what to do with us. Nowadays, of course, they have bomb dogs and drug dogs and gun dogs – we didn’t have any of that.”

The dogs knew their distinctive roles through collar training, Miller said. “When you were at home and all you had on him was a choker chain, it didn’t mean a whole lot. But the minute you put his work collar on him and threw him in the car, he knew the difference.”

Different kinds of collars signal distinct tasks, and the dogs learned the distinctions during their 14-week basic training (at the Easton barrack) with their assigned handler, Miller said.

“The first bite my dog got was me,” Miller said. “We had him against the fence and we were doing ‘heel,’ and the first time I popped him with a choke collar to get him to heel, he reached up and bit right through my hand. But he got better. I don’t know that I know a K9 handler that didn’t make several trips to Easton Memorial. All the nurses and doctors pretty much know you. Yeah, while you were training them you were gonna get bit.”

When Donovan first joined the K9 unit, he said a “legendary” K9 handler told him, “Getting a K9 is like having a 4-year-old for 10-plus years. The never get out of that stage where they need you to provide their food, their water, brush them, make sure they’re okay.”

Nevertheless, they are considered partners by the troopers who train and depend on them. “They’re our ‘canine partners’” according to the MSP official documents, Rob Connolly said. He struggles to find the words to describe the relationship. “It is so beyond police, it’s so beyond a work partner — it’s so much more. It’s family. It’s like a four-year-old, but it’s also like a little brother, because when you’re teaching them, it’s not like you’re teaching a child, you’re almost teaching what’s soon going to be your equivalent. It’s a weird feeling. And then it’s almost like they transition to your older brother,” Rob Connolly said, as his wife nodded, agreeing.

“Like, Melissa does a scan, and it’s all on Akita. It’s almost like you’re reading the dog. You’re making observations on the way their body changes. That’s them talking to you” Rob Connolly said.

When you’re tracking someone, and you’re going through the woods, every once in a while, ou can’t just run through the woods with a flashlight, you have to have enough feel for your dog – they may be on a line that’s 20-foot long, but there’s certain things they do that you can feel and it tells you a certain thing,” he said.

The way a dog moves, or its breathing changes can signal to a handler that “you’re coming up on the bad man,” Rob Connolly said. “When you understand how your dog works, you know what they’re telling you by their changes, you have a bond – I can’t even do it justice,” Rob Connolly said.

Melissa Connolly said she had had dogs all her life, and decided to apply for the K9 unit. She, along with her husband Rob and their friend, who has since retired, all put in for K9 duty at the same time “and we all got it – we were so excited,” Melissa Connolly said. Of the 15 troopers who applied along with them, only four were accepted into the program.

Traditionally, dogs already had names before they were assigned to their handlers. For a time, handlers were able to name their own partners, but the policy for the last couple of years has been to name dogs after fallen troopers, “which is really sharp,” Rob Connolly said.

All three of Melissa Connolly’s dogs have been female, single-purpose, drug detection dogs. She and her husband have decided that the ashes of their dogs will be buried with them. “We have it written into our wills,” Rob Connolly said.

“Although they are referred to as a ‘tool’ on occasion — and they are — they’re troopers,” Melissa Connolly said.

“They’re so much more,” Rob Connolly said.

“They’re troopers — no doubt about it,” Melissa Connolly said. “(Akita is) an extension of me, and I’m an extension of her. And when we go out and work, and we are successful — I can’t say enough about it. They’re troopers. They put the time in. They put work in just like we do. And they’re not getting paid. They get a brushin’, they get lovin’ — they are hard workers. We ask them to do a lot, and they do it, unconditionally. They’re troopers.”

Members of the family

“They’re like kids at some points in your day, and like partners at another point, and then they’re like your parents at different points,” Rob Connolly said. “When you have to rely on them to do what they’re supposed to do, it’s all on them. It isn’t like you can do their job. You can’t do their job — only they can do their job, and you have to be able to read them and work with them, you gotta be able to trust them. They gotta know what they’re doing — and they do. It’s different. They live with us, and when they retire, they live in the house with us. They’re family.”

“They were all family,” retired Tfc. John Kerchner of Denton said. “That was one of the criteria the State Police had when I went into K9.” He joined the K9 unit in 1974 and said he enjoyed being a dog handler until he retired in 1991. Of the seven dogs he handled, five stayed with him and are now buried in the cemetery.

“You had to have a place where you could put up a kennel and a dog house at your residence, so that the dog would go home with you and have a family life — an on-duty and an off-duty life,” Kerchner said. “And it made for a better dog — better all-around dog, better temperament — and it built the cohesiveness, rapport, the bonding that made our program a lot better than others.

“We didn’t go out and buy dogs in the beginning,” Kerchner said. “My first dog was literally a junkyard dog – he ate and drank out of a hubcap when we got him. It took me three days to be able to get into the kennel with him without him trying to bite me.” He trained K9 Alexander the Great and a bloodhound at the Easton training center.

Kerchner’s patient work, as well as plying him with treats, built a rapport with K9 Alex. “He was my fast buddy” after that, he said. K9 Alex was known as “Alligator” by other dog handlers after he bit holes in the fender of Kerchner’s police car.

With his dogs, Kerchner said he has recovered “millions of dollars of cocaine, millions of dollars worth of heroin.” He said it makes him feel good to have been part of those missions to get illicit drugs off the streets. “I enjoyed police work; I still do.” He is currently a bailiff for the Queen Anne’s County circuit court.

“(My K9 partner) Zim was a patrol and drug dog. He was scary. He was not a lap dog; he was a serious dog,” Rob Connolly said. “But when he retired, he got it. I bring him in as the (Centreville) barrack mascot. He’d come to work with me every day. He would lay right outside my office in the hallway.” People would feed him treats. “He was such a house mouse near the end — like a big, gentle giant.”

“When they retire, they get coddled,” Rob Connolly said.

Follow me on Twitter @connie_stardem.

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