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Rico walks like a drunken sailor, his hind end teetering unsteadily, almost as if it's disconnected from his front.

But the Petaluma Police canine officer can walk. He's alive. Less than two months ago, that was uncertain.

Today, Rico is recovering at home from near-fatal injuries he suffered in a two-story leap during a training exercise.

On April 15, Rico burst through a barrier and jumped from a second-story landing, 20 feet or more, breaking his first vertebrae, rupturing a disc in his back and puncturing a lung. When his handler and partner, Officer Michael Page, reached him, Rico wasn't yelping or whimpering.

"I thought he was dead," Page said this week, gently stroking Rico's head. "I was petting him, offering comfort. I thought he was dying and I just wanted to be there with him."

But Page and the other police dog-handlers training that day didn't give up. They quickly fashioned a blanket into a gurney and rushed Rico to VCA Animal Care Center of Sonoma County in Rohnert Park, hoping against hope that the injuries weren't fatal.

Rico, an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois born in Holland, has been Page's law enforcement partner since the dog was 18 months old. They began working Petaluma's streets together in 2006, forming a strong bond at work and at home.

The surgeon told Page a blood clot from the herniated disc was putting pressure on Rico's spinal cord. A wing-like piece of his first vertebrae was broken off. The hard landing essentially popped one of his lungs.

"It was surgery or ... " Page said, pausing, "or end-of-watch kind of stuff."

Emergency veterinary care is expensive, and a positive outcome for Rico was in doubt even with surgery. Petaluma's budget problems are well known.

But police Chief Pat Williams "didn't bat an eye," Page said. "He said, 'We don't have any money, but we'll get it done.'"

Petaluma's two other canine officers, Art Farinha and Corie Joerger, put the word out to the unit's supporters, knowing community support for the award-winning crook-catching dog would be strong.

Within 24 hours, $13,000 was raised for Rico's care. In total, donors sent in about $18,000, said Sgt. Ed Crosby, who supervises the department's canine squad.

The initial surgery cost about $10,000 and rehabilitation bills are ongoing.

"The community has been extremely generous. The messages of support for Rico and for Mike have been just amazing," Crosby said. "There's a bond there between handler and dog that is not too far from parent and child. This event hit Mike hard personally as well as professionally."

Victor Gonella, owner of Victory Dealer Group auto sales in Petaluma, has been a longtime supporter of police and the canine unit. He said when he heard how much Rico's surgery was going to cost, his company pledged a "significant amount."

"We just all committed to saying, 'Get him fixed, whatever it takes, get him fixed,'" he said. "Rico is an officer, after all, and he's done a lot of good service."

AAA Insurance donated $5,000, an amount that was increased from an initial pledge when word got out about Rico's injuries, said Kent Evans, business manager of the Petaluma office.

With continued rehab, Rico's ability to walk should improve, said neurosurgeon Dr. Jim Lavely, who performed the operation.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

"All things considered, we're all very pleased with how Rico's doing," he said. "It can take months to recover from spinal surgery. It's not the most graceful gait at this point, but we see improvement sometimes six months or a year out."

Page is grateful to master dog handler Frank Romano, who he said helped partially break Rico's fall, putting himself in danger since Rico was in "bite mode," following a command to find a supect. He said he remains in awe of the support — both financial and emotional — members of the community have shown him and Rico.

Rico will start hydrotherapy soon and will continue increasing his activity daily to gain strength and walk more smoothly. He will officially be retired from the department, and Page will buy him for $1.

For now, Rico clearly misses working, Page said. He perks up when he hears the police truck start up and when he sees Page in his uniform.

Page, now a regular patrol officer unless his cash-strapped department buys and trains another police dog, said he instinctively drives with his right arm reaching backward to where Rico would normally be in the truck.

Soon though, he hopes Rico will be chasing balls in the backyard like any normal family dog.

"He should live out a good life in retirement," Page said.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.