Above: Tia smiles for her official K-9 headshot.
Chad Connelly felt a little separation anxiety when his long-term partner retired from the East Lansing Police Department in December 2016. But his partner Tia didn't necessarily feel the same.
"I'd say she's leading the good life," says Lt. Connelly. "She has it pretty good."
One year later, Tia's life is much different than jumping into the back of a patrol vehicle as one of East Lansing's finest. Now, Tia's first order of business every day is a 10-minute ramble around the backyard, a quick brushing, and a bowl of fresh water before settling in for a restful routine as a retired member of the East Lansing K-9 Unit.
Tia, a 13-year-old Belgian Malinois, worked side-by-side with Connelly from November 2007 to Dec. 31, 2016 before retiring her badge. As an East Lansing service dog, she sniffed out narcotics, tracked missing persons or dangerous suspects, and put her life on the line as the Department's primary canine on the Ingham Regional Special Response Team. Today, she enjoys playing catch and walks, getting extra brushings or treats, and relishing the attention of Connelly, his wife Stacie, and their three young kids.
"Tia was pretty special. She was by far one of the best overall dogs we've ever had. She was a very good patrol dog, very good narcotics dog, and was extremely social, too," says Connelly. "She could go into preschools and let kids play with her and give demonstrations at schools without any worry. But when it was time to go out into the street and do her job, she was always ready."
Paws for certainty
Tia's path to the East Lansing police force began overseas. She was born in the Netherlands, then moved to Michigan to be trained through Northern Michigan K9–a full-time facility in Clare that prepares dogs to assist police and law-enforcement personnel.
Connelly, a seasoned K-9 officer, was looking for his second dog. Since starting with the force in September 1998, Connelly had never been without a four-legged partner. Zeus had been his first dog from 2000 to mid-2007. Tia would be his second. She was also just the second female dog in the history of the K-9 unit founded by ELPD's Sgt. Brian Horn in 1987.
"There was a lot of stigma that police canines should be males," says Connelly, a certified master trainer with the National Association of Professional Canine Handlers. "I couldn't disagree with that more. Tia is hands-down one of the best, if not the best, K-9 police we've had for this agency. It's just a matter of whether a dog has what it takes to do the job, not whether they are male or female."
Connelly selected Tia from a pool of a half dozen dogs presented to ELPD by the K-9 training facility in Clare. After working with her for a few weeks, he determined the then 2-year-old Tia was the high-drive, hardworking, social dog that was perfect for the East Lansing community.
Tia delivered. As a dual-duty patrol and narcotics dog, her job included building, area and article searches, tracking, and felony stops. In her nine years with the force, she caught 35 suspects, located thousands of dollars worth of illegal narcotics, and served as the primary special response dog.
"While she was very successful, Tia was by far one of the more quirky dogs I've known," says Connelly. "These dogs become extremely attached to their handlers. I had Tia before I started dating my wife. She was absolutely fine when Stacie came and visited. But the day we got married, Tia began marking her territory, saying 'Hey, it's just me and him. You don't belong here.'"
Tia eventually adjusted to the new makeup of the Connelly household and continued to excel in her job. A prized moment included locating and apprehending a violent suspect who had barricaded himself in a doctor's office. Another included tracking and finding an Alzheimer's patient who had wandered from home in the middle of a subzero night. Tia, who had only been on the job for three months, found the woman a quarter mile away in a wooded area, suffering from hypothermia.
"Because of Tia, we were able to get the woman the medical attention that more than likely saved her life," says Connelly. "Tia paid for herself that night. When you get to help one person or save one person's life, it's worth its weight in gold."
Above: Tia enjoys a quiet moment in her backyard.
Time to train
When Tia retired, Connelly changed gears. He now serves as administrative lieutenant, overseeing public information and officer training. Connelly also supervises and trains the up to four K-9 units in East Lansing, as well as K-9 units in Meridian Township, Fowlerville and Morrice police departments.
Dogs, he reflects, have always been a big part of his life. His dad was a military police officer who trained canines, which meant German shepherds were in the house while he was growing up. When Connelly became a police officer, he instantly knew K-9 work was a path he would follow. To date, he has spent most of his career working with a dog as his partner.
"We spend more time with these dogs than we do with any person on this earth," Connelly says of being a K-9 handler. "It's rare that they're not with us 24/7 and it's a bond that goes beyond any personal pet. You see dangerous things together. You see the highs and lows of police work together. You go to calls where people have lost their lives, hurt themselves or hurt other people. You see the whole spectrum of life."
Connelly occasionally misses being behind the wheel of the specially marked K-9 Unit car. But he also feels privileged to be training K-9 teams and witnessing the deep connection that results from spending 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with a dog. He knows, too, he can never forget his canine partners, especially when someone special is there to remind him day in and day out.
"Tia still gets up with me every morning and she's there when I get home," Connelly says. "She great with our kids and will always be an extension of my family."