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SALT LAKE CITY — After six years of deterring illegal drugs from the George E. Wahlen Veteran Affairs Medical Center, Max, a Veteran Affairs K-9, is retiring.
Max was given a retirement certificate Thursday by VA Deputy Police Chief Travis Payne at a send off celebrating his service where the community gathered to pet him one last time.
The labrador-pointer mix was much more than a police dog to his handler, VA police officer Ron Downey.
"He's more than a drug dog, he's my partner," said Downey.
Max's main duties included drug detection and keeping drugs off the premises. Max had a nose for detecting drugs on people and sniffing for drugs in vehicles parked at the center.
Max’s biggest busts include finding five heroin-filled balloons on one person and discovering 4.5 ounces of methamphetamine on another person, according to Downey.
"That's what he's here for. To keep the drugs out of the VA and help make sure our veterans are safe," Downey said.
K-9 drug detection training takes eight weeks at a certified academy where dogs start off with odor recognition to find different drugs, bombs or cadavers, Downey explained. Trainers work to hide the odors from the dogs and then make it increasingly harder for dogs to detect the scents. Rewarding dogs with treats after they've detected odors keeps them motivated.
"People seeing that he's here knowing that he can sniff out drugs and knowing that he finds stuff, that's a blessing for us because it does help keep the VA drug free. That's the goal — to keep all the drugs off campus,” said Downey.
Max also served as a community relations dog and constantly greeted veterans.
"What's significant is the amount of morale he brought around the hospital. Veterans were able to connect with Max," said Payne.
Payne said Max was the VA's first K-9. He watched him be trained in Utah's Peace Officer Standards and Training Council academy and grow to become beloved by veterans at the hospital.
Newly adopted, Max will now spend the rest of the days at Downey's home where he will live the "good retirement life."
Downey, who had been Max's handler for three years, said it will be hard to get accustomed to patrolling without Max, who has always been by his side.
"It's already been difficult, but we've been going through that transition for months now. He still likes to get up (in the morning) and think that he's going to work," said Downey, who now has to sneak out with the new K-9 when he leaves for work in the morning.
Downey said he looks forward to working with Rocky, a pointer-spaniel mix who just completed his training from POST in February.
The VA is lucky, Downey said, that both Max and the new K-9, Rocky, were donated — trained K-9s can cost upwards of $20,000.