One month ago, the news was released that A-Rod, canine officer with the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, had been euthanized due to biting his handler, Dep. Jay Fitzgerald during off-duty hours. Tuesday morning, more information was shed on just what happened the night of July 3 as A-Rod’s memorial service also turned into press conference for Sheriff Nate Dreckman to challenge some allegations made in a news report Monday night.
“I was in such shock it was happening,” Fitzgerald told the audience, which included K9 teams from area law enforcement departments, on what happened July 3.
Fitzgerald and his family were at their campsite at River of Lakes outside of Bagley looking to enjoy the Independence Day holiday. Because he had to work the morning of July 4, Dep. Fitzgerald was there with A-Rod, which he has handled since 2012, as he was going to leave the campground and go straight to work.
Nothing seemed amiss with A-Rod during the day at the campsite. Fitzgerald stated that during the day his two children had taken the dog out of his kennel twice, with other children getting to pet the dog.
Fitzgerald said at about 9:30 p.m. he took A-Rod out of his kennel to feed him, and to take him for a 10-minute walk. “I just let them be a dog,” Fitzgerald said of the off-duty walks - no training, no drills, just the dog doing what dogs do.
The deputy said that he returned to the campground to find his wife sitting on the steps of their camper, and the couple spent time petting the dog.
“He was licking her face, we were petting him, and he was waging his tail,” Fitzgerald recalled.
But something changed in a split second.
Fitzgerald said that while his wife was petting the dog, the Belgian Malinois changed his demeanor. “I seen his ears lay back, and I thought I could hear him growl,” the deputy told the audience. As he went to the dog, it lunged, knocking him into the door of the camper, the dog clamping down on Fitzgerald’s arm.
The bite lasted 10 seconds, but Fitzgerald said it felt like an hour.
During the bite, the deputy said he was just in shock on what was happening, never thinking for a 100 years this dog would snap at him.
Fitzgerald returned the dog to its kennel, and said instantly the dog was acting normal again. “I went to take the leash off, and he was licking my hand, and wagging his tail.”
After initially caring for his wound - one that ultimately took multiple stitches and knocked him out of work for more than a week, Fitzgerald called the sheriff’s office, which came to investigate the incident, and ultimately take him to the hospital.
While being taken to the hospital, Fitzgerald said he was talking with Dep. Duane Jacobson, just trying to figure out what happened. He raced through ideas, spiting out things like maybe it was the fireworks in Guttenberg, but ultimately dismissed that because they had been going on for some time before the attack, and the dog has been trained while in the presence of loud noises like weapons fire.
The fireworks idea was part of a draft report that had been initially written by Jacobson, but ultimately cut from the final report by Chief Deputy Jack Johnson.
That deletion was part of a news report Monday night by WKOW 27, which noted statements in an email from Sgt. Todd Miller which questioned Fitzgerald state at the night of the incident, as well as his handling of A-Rod.
On Tuesday morning, Dreckman was unhappy with the report, stating that while the report makes it appear like the statements were from Miller, they were from citizens that were telling him this.
“They put their own spin on it,” Dreckman said of the WKOW report.
After the memorial service, Dreckman defended Miller. “He had received some information that he felt they should be aware of,” Dreckman said of the statements, which said Fitzgerald had been drinking during the day, and questioned his history with K9 officers.
Dreckman said that those statements were given to those reviewing the incident, but were ultimately found to have no bearing, or were unsubstantiated.
Sgt. Brian Bierman, who oversees the K9 teams, stated that both handlers have done a great job in their years of service.
“We have no complaints,” Dreckman stated.
The department took to the task of trying to determine what went wrong. Some experts told them there could be two possible issues, either there was a chemical imbalance or a brain tumor that would alter the dog’s personality.
Not finding a suitable answer, and not feeling there was an alternative route, the department ordered A-Rod be euthanized.
Dep. Fitzgerald was with A-Rod when he passed on July 7.
Dreckman defended the decision, noting he did not feel safe if A-Rod was in another family, or department, and snapped. “Ultimately, we are responsible,” Dreckman said. This is why they did not try to find the dog another law enforcement agency to be transferred to.
Dreckman also said the department did not have any sort of autopsy on the dog to determine the cause, as it would have spent taxpayers’ money, and they would have been left in the same position - a lost dog.