New police dog has Continental flair

December 12, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

Anne Arundel County police Officer Gary Wheeler was busy breaking in a new partner last week.

Robbie Merit, Officer Wheeler's sidekick, started work Monday. On Tuesday, he helped flush a hiding suspect out of some woods. On Wednesday, he helped sniff out a plastic bag with $250 worth of cocaine.

He did so well, they gave him the rest of the week off. There's only one thing. The mutt doesn't understand English, so he probably didn't understand many of the accolades being sent his way.

Actually, Robbie is anything but a mutt. He's a Belgian Malinois, trained for 2 1/2 years in Holland by the Royal Dutch Police. Your average police dog is trained only 16 to 18 weeks.

He is the elite of police dogs, probably the only one of his kind east of the Mississippi.

But for all his training, if Officer Wheeler ordered him to heel in English, he'd just get one of those puzzled doggie looks.

"All his commands are in Dutch," Officer Wheeler said, ordering the wandering Robbie to heel close to him using the Dutch command: "Beta."

Robbie is a replacement for Gouch, who worked with Officer Wheeler until he was severely injured in October investigating a burglary in a Severna Park music store. Gouch, one of the most highly decorated police dogs in the state during his eight-year career, was severely cut by broken glass. He severed two ligaments in his right rear leg, nicked some arteries and cut halfway through his back leg muscle.

Emergency surgery saved his life, but the injuries and a hip problem caused by age and work meant he could no longer continue on the force. He retired to Officer Wheeler's Harwood home.

Even now, Officer Wheeler gets emotional talking about Gouch.

"You spend more time with the dog than you do with your wife and your kids. You become attached. He's your partner," he said. "You know that when the time comes, he'd be more than willing to sacrifice his life for you."

Gouch apparently made an impression on other Southern District officers too. "He was being operated on and all these officers were filing through paying their respects," Officer Wheeler said.

It was this exact story, told with passion and emotion, that Officer Wheeler related to a November meeting of the board of the local chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. The county had no funds for another dog, so Officer Wheeler was going to various organizations, hat in hand.

"It generated a feeling of enthusiasm and emotion," said Kim Bunger, president-elect of the builders group. "And the whole board rose and said we make a commitment to you."

The builders agreed to pay the entire $4,500 cost for Robbie. Other groups paid travel expenses for Officer Wheeler, who had to fly to Harlingen, Texas, to pick up Robbie and go through eight days of training, mainly to learn the 47 Dutch commands he understands.

Now, 3 1/2 -year-old Robbie joins the county police dog force, which consists of three other patrol dogs, two drug dogs and one bomb dog. Robbie gives police the advantage of a very keen sense of smell. He can find objects as small as a penny.

"If you have a crime scene in which there are shell casings, anything with human scent, he can find it," Officer Wheeler said. "If he can't pick it up, he'll stand by it and bark."

He is a muscular dog, quicker and stronger than any Officer Wheeler has seen. Yet he is very sociable; that is, until he hears "stellen," his command for attack.

Robbie lives at home with Officer Wheeler, his wife, Kathy, and their two children, Amanda, 4, and Gary Jr., 2. He gets along with everybody, even the cats.

That is, everybody except Gouch.

"Robbie goes with me to work. I'm working with him instead of Gouch. I think a jealousy factor enters into it," Officer Wheeler said. "Gouch still wants to be top dog."

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