Grosse Pointe Farms’ first K-9 leaves lasting legacy

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 15, 2023

 Shortly before his retirement in fall 2022, Grosse Pointe Farms K-9 Duke — with his handler, Sgt. Tim Harris — gives a demonstration Aug. 6, 2022, at Pier Park during the city’s annual ice cream social. Duke died in 2023 at the age of 10.

Shortly before his retirement in fall 2022, Grosse Pointe Farms K-9 Duke — with his handler, Sgt. Tim Harris — gives a demonstration Aug. 6, 2022, at Pier Park during the city’s annual ice cream social. Duke died in 2023 at the age of 10.

File photo by Erin Sanchez


GROSSE POINTE FARMS — When Grosse Pointe Farms K-9 Duke retired last fall, it was hoped that he’d have at least a few years of snoozing on the couch and chasing balls in the yard.

Instead, Duke’s handler, Farms Sgt. Tim Harris, is now spending his first set of holidays without his devoted best pal.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without him,” Harris said of the dog who changed his life, leading to his marriage to Farms public safety dispatcher Paige Thomas — they share a young daughter together — his promotion to sergeant, and the many close friends he made with others in the K-9 community.  “I have these people in my life because of Duke.”

Duke and Harris were valiant crimefighters, tracking down dozens of wanted suspects over the years and unearthing hidden contraband such as drugs. But Duke was valued perhaps even more for the intangible impact he had on the world around him.

“Duke was a fixture in the community,” Farms Public Safety Director John Hutchins said. “He was an integral part of the Grosse Pointe Farms Public Safety family. He and Tim made a tremendous difference to a lot of kids in the community. He helped to bridge the gaps between police and the community.”

Harris recalled driving around the Pointes on Halloween and getting photos of kids dressed as police officers with Duke. He would also hand out baseball cards with Duke’s photo and interesting facts. Harris and Duke frequently gave demonstrations in parks, classrooms and other venues, where Harris could explain the science behind what Duke was trained to do.

Among K-9s — already some of the smartest and best-trained dogs around — Duke was exceptional. As a last-minute entry and with only a week to prepare, Duke and Harris received a trophy for third place in criminal apprehension at the United States Police Canine Association Region 19 competition, which took place Aug. 4 to Aug. 8, 2019, in and around Heins Field in Sterling Heights. Only two points separated the first-place winner from the third-place winner.

“He had a near perfect run,” Harris said after the competition.

Duke and Harris became local legends for their ability to track suspects, narcotics, guns and the like.

“Quite often, Detroit police would ask for Duke and Tim before one of their own dogs — that’s how good he was,” Hutchins said.

Harris said Detroit police called “all the time.” And he welcomed that.

“The reason Duke and I were so successful is, I never said no,” Harris said. “I didn’t care about the overtime. … I wanted us to be good when our community needed us.”

All of those runs in Detroit honed Duke’s skills. Harris said they once searched for a missing child in Davison, and they did searches for bodies.

“It made us really good,” Harris said. “He found a lot of drugs, a lot of guns, a lot of people.”

They also trained frequently, and with dogs and handlers Harris said were “some of the best in the world,” including members of the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, U.S. Army Rangers and the British Special Air Service.

While he might have looked fierce, when he wasn’t chasing the bad guys, Duke was a softie who loved all the attention and pets that he got — and playing with his favorite rubber ball, a reward for a job well done. Harris took him to hospitals multiple times over the years, where he brought smiles and joy to children undergoing treatment.

“The dog made it easier to start up a conversation (with law enforcement),” Hutchins said. “Duke was always super friendly to anyone that walked up to him and loved to be petted. … He loved to socialize and be around people. He was just so well-mannered and had a great personality and disposition.”

Harris said he “got lucky” with Duke, because his patience and sociability made him ideal for being around people. He even tolerated things like wearing a reindeer nose and antlers for Christmas and sitting in a race car for Racing for Kids to the Hill.

“He was always game for doing some goofy stuff,” Harris recalled with a smile.

Harris said the community and his department were extremely supportive of Duke. In fact, he said community support was the reason the Farms was able to launch a K-9 program.

In spring 2014, Grosse Pointe Farms businesswoman, philanthropist and dog lover Gretchen Valade — who died in December 2022 — offered to purchase a K-9 for the Farms and fund the program; working dogs generally have a working career of about eight to 10 years. Because of Valade’s love of jazz, the Farms’ K-9 was named Duke for jazz great Duke Ellington.

Harris was one of seven officers who applied to be the city’s K-9 handler. He selected Duke — then a 13-month-old pup who had been born in Gerbisbach, Germany, on April 3, 2013, — on May 4, 2014, from among the other prospective K-9s at Von der haus Gill German Shepherds Inc. in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Harris said St. Clair Shores police officer Chris Periatt — who was the handler of K-9 Hondo, who died in 2016 — advised him to pay attention not to the dog’s appearance, but to his nose. With his striking, solid black coat, Duke didn’t look like the standard police dog, but Harris could see he was fast, agile and friendly — and he knew he needed a social dog in the Pointes.

“This was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Harris said. “It changed my whole life. … I can’t thank the community enough. … Being able to have an impact on people’s lives with him — that’s because of the community.”

The bond between K-9 and handler is a powerful one.

“He was with Duke night and day,” Hutchins said. “It was more than just having a pet — they were work partners. … They were together more than most spouses are.”

Harris — who has two older sons from his first marriage — can attest to the closeness of his relationship with Duke.

“He was my whole world,” Harris said. “He was with me more than anybody else. He wasn’t just my pet. I saw him more than my kids.”

Harris is now in charge of the Farms’ K-9 program. Officer Richard Rosati and his K-9, Rocco, took over for Duke when he retired in 2022.

Duke was just over 10 years old when he died on July 1. He had been at the Farms Public Safety Department office that morning — Harris usually brought him in when he was working because everyone liked seeing Duke, who would hang around the office while Harris was on patrol. Aside from sleeping more, Harris said Duke hadn’t shown any signs of ill health, so it was a shock when he died suddenly at home. Duke is now buried at Harris’ cottage in West Branch. He was supposed to be the ring bearer at the wedding of Harris and Thomas in August. The couple set up a memorial chair at their wedding instead for the dog who brought them together when Thomas was working in Grosse Pointe Park and Duke ambled up to her one day while Harris was at the Park’s Public Safety Department.

“It really did change my life forever,” Harris said. “I wish I could go back and start it all again. I wouldn’t change a thing.”