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Peru police dog retires, becomes pet

PERU (AP) — Matt Heiden and Tito are work partners and buddies. Tito likes to fetch a red rubber ball, chewing on it like a pacifier. And Tito's great around kids, including Heiden's four children.

The 6-year-old male Belgian Malinois and the Peru police canine officer have worked together on patrol since 2010. That ended two weeks ago, when Heiden and the department decided to retire Tito due to arthritic hips and a degenerative spine.

Tito has been promoted to full-time pet at the Heiden household in Spring Valley.

About a year ago, Heiden and other officers noticed a hitch in Tito's run. A veterinarian discovered the bone problems.

"That's something that the vet said he was born with," Heiden said.

Recently, Tito's back legs started giving out in training. It was time to retire him, Heiden said.

Heiden brought Tito to the police department when he spoke with the NewsTribune. Heiden went to his squad, clipped the leash onto Tito, let him out, and Tito nuzzled against Heiden's leg.

"He's the kind of dog, I can take him to a school and they can pet him," Heiden said. "He's very affectionate."

Tito already lived in the Heiden household, a common arrangement between canine officers and their dogs. Heiden took permanent ownership of the retired Tito by signing paperwork and paying $1 to the department, he said.

Tito has many drug and cash seizures to his credit, but the standout moment came in the summer of 2011. Responding to a stabbing in Peru and a fleeing suspect in La Salle, Tito tracked the man by scent for about a mile, first to a business and then to woodland, leading to an arrest, Heiden said.

Tito's retirement came as the department was trying to find a replacement police dog, Kali, which died in August after a patrol car accident with its partner, Officer Art Smith.

The department prepared to receive Nova, also a Belgian Malinois, but Nova turned out to be a bad fit, police chief Doug Bernabei said.

It became apparent to Officer Smith that Nova would not work out, Bernabei said.

"It didn't show the drive we're looking for," he said. "The dog was older than we wanted. It was 4 years old. We didn't see the work ethic in the dog. For the age, it didn't show the maturity level and drive we had come to see in our other dogs."

Peru gets its dogs from North Iowa K-9, Fort Dodge, Iowa, which provided Tito. The company has resumed searching for a dog for Peru. The cost of the dog, training, vehicle (to replace the totaled squad from the crash that killed Kali) and equipment is about $60,000, covered by about $35,000 in donations and the rest from insurance, Bernabei said.

Police patrols are hard work for a dog, Bernabei said. Dogs do a lot of walking around cars during traffic stops and jumping in and out of squad cars. Peru patrol shifts last 12 hours.

The working life of police dog is six to nine years, said Bob Pyszka, Peru police deputy chief. Until Peru gets a new dog it will seek canine help as needed from La Salle, Spring Valley and state police and the sheriff's office, Pyszka said.

Heiden, 39, has been a law enforcement officer for 12 years, first with the La Salle County Sheriff's Office, then with Spring Valley Police and the last five years with Peru. He's been a canine officer for seven years.

Because a canine officer also lives with the dog, Heiden will not take on a new police dog as long as he has Tito at home, he said.

The past few days have been Heiden's first patrols in seven years without a dog partner.

"It's been weird," he said. "You're used to looking back and talking to him, you know."

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