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October 29, 2013

Local K-9 unit wins award for tracking armed home invaders

By Jessica Strachan
C & G Staff Writer

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After six years of working together, officer Michael Raby will retire his Dutch shepherd, Axe.

SOUTHFIELD — Meet Axe. He’s a police K-9 who brings new meaning to the term “underdog.”

“Because of his personality, he was almost like a kid with ADHD,” Southfield officer and K-9 handler Michael Raby said, referring to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “Most of it was because he wasn’t put in the right situation. He wasn’t put on the right training regimen. He wasn’t put with the right person. … It really is an art to match up a handler with a dog.”

That was back in 2007, when the Dutch shepherd was first placed with Raby. Fast forward to the present, and the police duo has secured the Southfield Police Department’s first Utility Team of the Year Award from the National Association of Professional Canine Handlers.

The award was received Oct. 2 for outstanding performance in the area of tracking. It was given for an incident last year that led Raby and Axe 1.5 miles through the city of Southfield, searching for three suspects who had just held a knife to a 14-year-old girl’s throat in an attempt to break into her home and rob the family.

“The mother scared the intruders off. … I got over there with Axe, in the area of Evergreen and Nine Mile, tracked them across Evergreen, into the Word of Faith complex and found a couple articles of clothing — a shirt and gloves they had discarded,” said Raby, who has logged 18 years on the force. “We tracked them into an adjoining neighborhood from there and up to a house, where the three suspects were located.”

All were arrested and subsequently charged for the crime, he added.

“There were a lot of possibilities and areas where we could have lost track and not been able to catch them, but (Axe) did a very nice job,” Raby said. “Tracking is one of the hardest things to do; there’s so many variables that we play with, and dogs are just tracking dead skin cells.”

In his time since he first started his career riding with Detroit officers and knew canine handling was his calling, Raby has been on several one-mile tracks before, he said, but none more lengthy than that night apprehending three armed suspects, he said. It was the biggest job he’s done with the dog — a dog that another police force had given up on due to deeming him “incorrigible.”

“Axe has an interesting story,” Raby explained. “He was actually working with a local department and it didn’t work between him and the handler. They were actually getting rid of him because they determined that he had some behavioral issues they thought he couldn’t overcome.”

Two now-retired local handlers knew just who could handle Axe, however, and they stepped in to put him in the right hands. That is, the hands of Raby.

“He’s actually a great dog and didn’t cost the city of Southfield anything to get,” Raby added.

They’ve worked together since that point and still do — for a few weeks longer, at least. On Dec. 1, exactly six years from the day the two took their first official patrol session together, Axe will retire and give some much-needed rest to his tired bones. He has arthritis in both of his rear knees and hip dysplasia, Raby said.

“I kinda love him like a child, so I didn’t want to work him into the ground,” he said. “We spend so much time with our dogs that they are like a member of the family for us.”

Retirement for canines and their handlers means the dog shifts from daytime work partner to lifetime companion. Already staying each night with the Raby family, just as most K-9s do with their handlers, Axe will join family dog Lucky as a second house pet.

Meanwhile, the force — and Raby family — now welcomes 16-month-old Ruger, who will replace Axe in the force and become the little brother of Axe and Lucky. Raby was actually able to fly out to Holland and hand-pick the Dutch shepherd pup, who he said will likely be the canine he finishes out his career with.

Though Ruger has already joined Axe and Raby in training in order to learn the ropes, it’s Axe who still has the spotlightduring his few last weeks.

“He’s been great — he really has. And he deserves this retirement, that’s for sure,” Raby said. “He’s caught lots of people on tracks and recovered lots of narcotics money.”

Among his most notable accomplishments is tracking a homicide suspect from a Southfield hotel several years ago all the way to a Dumpster in Detroit, where the man was hiding.

“He’s a very special, very good dog,” Raby added.

And though things will be a little different with a new partner by his side, Raby said he wouldn’t have his career any other way.

“Having a dog as a partner, it’s similar to a person, but also different. Each dog has its own personality,” he said. “He’s a tool, but not a piece of equipment; he’s a living, breathing thing. He has opinions and feelings.”

Handling a dog that lives its entire life to serve is an incredible thing, Raby said, and he added that dogs like Axe love what they do just as much as he does.

“I’ve put myself in harm’s way many times with Axe, and he’s been there. I don’t ever doubt that he’d give his own life to save mine,” Raby explained. “I have to watch his back, and he was to watch mine. That’s how it will always go, and it’s pretty cool.”

Chief Eric Hawkins said Raby and Axe have been a standout team in the department and have come nothing short of doing their best in protecting the city.

“The Southfield Police Department is extremely proud of Officer Raby for his dedication and commitment to the K-9 unit,” he said. “This award publicly acknowledges what we have known for many years: that Officer Raby will go above and beyond to maintain the safety and security of the Southfield community.”

It’s an honor Raby said he’s proud to accept with his partner, as long as one thing is clear: “I have to be honest and say, since I’ve been in the K-9 unit, I haven’t worked a day. You’ll never be compensated for the amount of work you put into it … but it’s a lifestyle and it’s a passion to do it. It’s a wonderful thing for sure.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jessica Strachan at jstrachan@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1108.