As I sat in the funeral home chapel the other day, I couldn’t help thinking that I’ve been here many times before — too many times in recent years — to honor an individual’s life and recount post-mortem that individual’s accomplishments.
The setting was the same, as was the purpose, and indeed several of those gathered there were the same folks with whom I’ve exchanged a solemn handshake at similar events but any resemblance to the traditional funeral ended there.
This service was not for a man (or woman) at all, but for man’s best friend. That’s right, a memorial service for a dog, complete with eulogies, prayer and honorary pallbearers.
But before you go thinking that’s a bit over the top for a four-legged friend, let me hasten to say this was no ordinary dog. I’m sure every dog owner thinks his canine is special, and based on my experience, I’d have to agree.
I submit that Gabo, the dog who was the subject of the recent memorial service was not merely special, but exceptional.
Born in Hungary in 2011, Gabo made his way to the United States at the age of one. Trained as a police K-9, acquired by the Jonesboro Police Department and assigned to Officer Erik Johnson, Gabo quickly made a name for himself.
Together, the team of Gabo and Johnson worked the streets performing narcotics detection, tracking, building search, handler protection and suspect apprehension. And yes, the two of them, Gabo and Johnson, were quite good at the entire repertoire. Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott noted Gabo’s career statistics in his career — 154 tracks and/or building searches; 71 suspect apprehensions; 29 “bite apprehensions” (yes that’s exactly what it sounds like); 16 pounds of marijuana seized; seven pounds of methamphetamine seized and $30,762 in cash seized.
The team often was called upon by the Arkansas Department of Community Corrections or federal agencies to assist in finding folks who for any one of a number of reasons didn’t want to be found. I recall on one occasion during my work as a civilian with JPD that Gabo suffered a brief illness after ingesting some drainage ditch water while conducting a bite apprehension of a fleeing offender in Poinsett County. He and the offender soon recovered, Gabo perhaps less painfully than the other party.
At the memorial service, several people described the dog as “laser-focused” when given commands by officer Johnson, but when he wasn’t working, that strong, handsome dog was a model of decorum — gentle with school kids and comfortable around groups of adults.
It was the aforementioned laser focus demonstrated in an incident in December of 2018 that gained team Gabo and Johnson a great deal of attention within and outside law enforcement circles in Arkansas and nationally.
The team went to assist the SWAT team with a barricaded suspect who had shot an employee of an apartment complex and refused to disarm herself or surrender. Neither hours of negotiation nor introduction of tear gas and pepper spray into the apartment was successful in flushing the suspect.
Finally, in an attempt to resolve the standoff, the police department decided to send a K-9 into the apartment to apprehend the woman. Johnson agreed to send Gabo, knowing there was a distinct likelihood the dog wouldn’t get out unscathed. Gabo, wearing a bullet-resistant vest provided by the organization Vested Interest in K-9s, engaged the suspect who fired at him five times, striking the dog in the chest and leg before shooting at officers who entered the apartment and returned fire, fatally wounding her.
Gabo, though bleeding profusely, didn’t let go of the woman, continuing to pull her from her hiding place until the officers engaged her. Johnson carried his wounded dog down the apartment steps and transported him to a veterinarian who performed surgery. Gabo recovered fully, returning to duty weeks later with the same laser focus and fearlessness he previously displayed. The vest turned aside the bullet that would otherwise have pierced his heart and lungs.
But in January of this year, Gabo contracted an unrelated illness from which he couldn’t recover and he died Jan. 16, hence the memorial service last month. I’m certain many of the folks who attended the service found it comforting, perhaps even uplifting. But for me and I hope for others, the service was nothing if not instructional.
Elliott, Capt. Todd Nelson and Mike Hart, one of the department’s volunteer chaplains, spoke of Gabo’s exceptional focus on the task at hand, about his loyalty, bravery, tenacity and about his unconditional love for and obedience to his master, Erik Johnson.
Aren’t focus, loyalty and love qualities that we wish to see in others? Aren’t they also qualities that we often fail to display ourselves? What about bravery and tenacity?
We’re unlikely to have to clamp down and literally drag someone who doesn’t want to be pulled out, but we may need to borrow a bit of Gabo’s bravery and tenacity to help a business associate, a struggling family member or a friend who is mired in difficulty.
The dog could have laid down on the job or run the other way when he got hurt, but he instead stayed in the fight. Everybody could benefit from a little Gabo in their mindset.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.