Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

It's a dog's life: police remember K-9 Phelan for service and enthusiasm
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Jan 11, 2013, 13:12

contributed photo “The picture says it all:” Sean Spencer and Phelan completing a water exercise.

Dogs are frequently referred to as best friends. They can also be some of the best co-workers. Such was the case with K-9 Phelan, who served the Hopewell Police Department from 2007 to 2012.

“I loved working with Phelan,” said Officer Sean Spencer, as he held a box containing the remains of his partner at a ceremony Wednesday.

Other police dogs and handlers from Chesterfield, Petersburg and Richmond joined the Hopewell police department in Ashford Civic Plaza to say goodbye to a dynamic and effective member of the police force.

The announcement of Phelan’s death led to an outpouring of support when it appeared on the police department’s Facebook page. The post was seen by 8.303 people, “liked” by 873 and shared by 81 people.

Ninety-three people commented on it, writing messages including, “K-9 Phelan helped the Tri-Cities many times,” and, “thank you for protecting the citizens of Hopewell.”

Phelan and Spencer were a team, working together.

Police Chief John Koehane called guests’ attention to a picture of Phelan and Spencer performing a water exercise together that was folded into many programs, showing dog and handler swimming in sync, focused on a common goal.

“I can see no better picture of a relationship between K-9 and handler than what you see of this picture here that many have,” Keohane said.

In 2007, Spencer went to police headquarters to pick up his new co-worker. As he was signing the papers for Phelan, Spencer’s wife, who had accompanied her husband to meet the dog and was expecting the couple’s first son, went into labor.

“Phelan met my oldest son at the time, just once, and it was through the fencing of his kennel,” Spencer wrote in a biography, read to the crowd gathered in the plaza on Wednesday by Captain Greg Taylor.

Four months after that first meeting, Phelan and Spencer were participating in graduation demonstrations at the Norfolk K-9 Academy. During an identification exercise, in which Phelan was to locate various objects placed in the field, the dog went above and beyond, making an additional identification no one expected him to make.

“Phelan immediately leaped up and ran, at a sprint, for the crowd,” Spencer wrote. “People were screaming and running in different directions, trying to escape from the four-legged monster bearing down on them. Phelan continued to run to the back of the bleachers. It was then that I saw his target. He was running directly at my four-month-old son.”

As he ran after the dog, Spencer feared he might have to put Phelan down in front of the crowd to protect his child. As it turned out, that was Phelan’s intention too.

“Phelan ran up to the stroller, put his giant head inside, sniffed my son and sat with him in an apparent move to guard him from everyone else,” the biography said.

After he was brought back to the field, Phelan performed flawlessly on the article search. It was the start of a six-year partnership.

“There were different things about Phelan that endeared him to me besides the job he did,” Taylor read from Spencer’s biography

Phelan would bark when their unit number was called, and got excited any time Spencer put the car in gear, spoke on the radio, made a traffic stop, approached a large crowd or drove fast to respond to a call.

“He was ready to work,” he said.

There were silly moments too, like the time Phelan fought a possum, throwing it into the air then retreating back to Spencer when the possum returned for more. Or the times he would accidentally activated the car’s siren, scaring everyone around.

“He would also spin in the kennel is such a way that, at times, he would open the interior kennel door,” Taylor read. “On more than one occasion, I had come out from a call and found him sitting in the driver’s seat.”

Whenever they parked, Phelan would watch the view from the back windows of the vehicle intently, letting Spencer know if anyone was approaching. His vigilance and enthusiasm made his appearance a welcome sight to officers at many a scene.

“There was nothing better to have than that beast in the back, and see him rock the whole car back and forth violently, while still wagging his tail so hard against the kennel it sounded like gun shots, in his excitement to get out and go to work,” Taylor read from Spencer’s biography. “I know he made me feel safer, and I believe he made other officers feel safe too.”

In his six years of service, Phelan never bit anyone, although he assisted in the apprehension of many suspects, using his bark, his speed and his nose.

He tracked a suspect in a child abduction case straight to his house, although witnesses swore the man had continued past that spot. During another pursuit, a suspect scaled an eight foot fence and paused to laugh when Phelan hit the obstacle. Spencer lifted Phelan up and threw him over the fence to continue his pursuit, which ended in surrender. Another suspect wanted on federal fire arms charges gave up as Phelan pursued him tirelessly.

“He wasn’t perfect, and he needed a lot of work a long the way, but he made me a better handler than I might have been had he not come into my life,” Spencer said in Phelan’s biography.

At the police department’s mid-year award ceremony in December, Spencer was recognized for his control of Phelan during an incident where Spencer and a subject struggled. Spencer was able to control the agitated dog through voice commands alone, making sure there were no bites.

During Wednesday’s ceremony, Spencer was presented with Phelan’s remains as other police dogs stood at attention.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Dogs and officers from the surrounding area came out in force to honor K-9 Phelan, who died in December, 2012.

Spencer said that after Phelan passed away, many of his fellow officers expressed sympathy, but said that they were under the impression the dog hated them.

“I assured everyone, he didn’t hate that person, he didn’t hate the next person,” Spencer said. “He just didn’t know whether someone was a good guy or bad guy and his only job was to let someone know not to approach me or to approach the vehicle unless they had good intentions. My dog didn’t hate anyone, he liked everyone, he just had a different way of showing it.”

Phelan and Spencer were part of a long tradition of dog and handler teams. A police dog history appearing on the website of the London, England based Metropolitan Police notes that officers in the 1800s were frequently accompanied by dogs on patrols, although the animals were not formally trained.

In 1899, the city of Ghent in Belgium began strategically training dogs to assist police, and the practice spread across Europe and North America.

Police Chaplain Phil Andrews recognized the contributions of Phelan and the many other furry, four-legged officers who have assisted humans on battlefields and at crime scenes throughout history in his remarks at the memorial ceremony.

“The dogs that have been trained to serve alongside a police officer fill a very important role in police work,” he said.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson An officer and a gentle dog: K-9 Officers and their dogs came from surrounding localities to recognize the contibutions of dogs like Phelan make to law enforcement.

“I’m sure that many a police officer’s life has been spared because of a good K-9.”

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