When Joel Walter was working as a police officer in Rohnert Park, he knew he could count on his partner whenever he was in trouble. Now, the retired officer is returning the favor.
Walter's partner was a dog — a Belgian Malinois named Bosco — and the two of them patrolled their community together for three years, sniffing out drugs and helping to keep the peace.
When Bosco was retired in 2008, Walter adopted his partner and the bond between dog and handler grew even stronger.
But 10-year-old Bosco faces a dire illness. Last month, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive cancer of the bone, and doctors were forced to amputate his right leg and shoulder. While Bosco's prognosis is hopeful, he must first go through a long course of chemotherapy. The operation and treatment are expected to run nearly $10,000 and, Walter, who is responsible for the cost and care of Bosco, has turned to the community they both served for help.
"He's my buddy," said Walter, 48, who retired from the public safety department in 2012 because of a medical condition. "He's a member of our family, and I'd do anything for him. I know he would do anything for me."
Walter said he knew Bosco was special from the first time they met when both were in K-9 police dog handling school and Bosco broke open a door during a training exercise.
"We had a guy hiding in the room in a bite suit," said Walter, describing the protective gear law enforcement officers wear to train dogs to attack suspects. "The suspect was supposed to open and close the door quickly to let Bosco know where he was. But it was an old building and when the guy shut it, Bosco just rammed his head against it and busted it down."
In another exercise, Walter said Bosco leaped and pulled himself up and on to the back of a fire engine. The volunteer suspect was hiding on the roof of the truck.
Walter came to rely on his canine partner in real life-and-death situations. Once, when they were assisting with crowd control, a drunk suspect got loose while other officers were handcuffing him and lunged for Walter's gun holster. Thankfully, Bosco jumped in.
"That could have been a terrible outcome," he said. "There was a big crowd there, and when they saw what Bosco did to the one guy, nobody wanted any part of him."
As with many handlers, Walter asked for and was given custody of Bosco when he was retired and they have lived together with Walter's wife, Sharon, their three daughters and two other dogs (a poodle and a Chihuahua).
But early this year, Walter noticed Bosco was limping and that's when the "nightmare" as he calls it, began. The first treatments didn't cure the limp and the veterinarian recommended X-rays. That's when they found the tumor.
The cancer, which is extremely painful and strikes mostly large-dog breeds as they age, is almost always treated with amputation followed by a course of radiation.
Doctors at the Rohnert Park branch of the VCA Animal Care Center did the amputation on Valentine's Day, and while X-rays have not showed conclusively that the cancer has spread, they said that with osteosarcoma it's more than likely already metastasized.