On Thanksgiving night, the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office lost a valuable member of their K9 unit. Hector, an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois, died unexpectedly and was found by his handler Zach Smith during a routine check around 8:20 p.m. Nov. 22.
He was one month away from retirement and would have turned 9 years old on Feb. 2.
“It was so unexpected and then on top of that he was about to go be a pet,” said Sheriff Jeff Johnson.
Hector was displaying signs of old age such as hip issues commonly found in large, working breed dogs.
“You don’t think of a dog, 9 years old, as being old, old but apparently working dogs – they have more issues and things like that than a house dog,” Johnson said.
Hector joined the sheriff’s office in 2012 when he was 2 years old. He was trained at Custom Canines Unlimited in Maysville for drug detection and tracking and apprehension and had two handlers in Dawson County prior to being paired with Deputy Zach Smith four and a half years ago.
“Hector was funny. Hector was not an attention dog,” Smith said. “Hector loved to work. Hector would let you pet him but that was it. He was letting you pet him. He was definitely not the dog that would run up to you and say ‘pet me, pet me.’ He wanted to get in the car and he wanted to go to work. He enjoyed finding people and finding drugs and that is what he lived for.”
As a team, Smith and Hector helped not only Dawson County, but the surrounding counties of Forsyth, Lumpkin, White and Fannin as well as assisted with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations and the Appalachian Drug Task Force.
From tracking fleeing felons, finding lost children and the elderly with dementia who wandered off to sniffing out drugs and taking down suspects, Hector did it all.
“That was our job every day. He loved every minute of it and so did I,” Smith said.
Hector had a good reputation in the county, according to Smith. With his 12 hour training every Wednesday and his drive and passion to work, he didn’t make many mistakes on his alerts.
When Smith calculated their track record and numbers last year, the partners had 94 percent accuracy on alerts.
“I can tell you off the top of my head there’s three in our four-and-a-half year career. There were three cars where we did not find something in it,” Smith said.
Two of those three vehicles did however contain enough drug residue to be substantiated.
The first driver admitted to throwing drugs out of the window before entering the traffic stop.
The second driver admitted that a suspect carrying drugs had exited the back of his truck before reaching the search.
“The best part about Hector is he kept me probably out of more stuff between foot chases and fights than I’ll ever know,” Smith said.
Smith smiled as he recounted some of his most memorable moments of Hector keeping him safe without even leaving the patrol car.
“There was a guy (who) had parole warrants that was walking right here on Academy Avenue. This gentleman was known to either fight or run from us just about every time we that dealt with him,” said Smith.
He explained to the man that he had outstanding warrants and that he would be going to jail.
“He turned and looked at me and kind of laughed and I said, ‘Well we can fight if that’s what you need to do, just know that the dog’s going to come out the back of the car and you’re probably going to end up in the hospital for dog bites,’” Smith said. “And I’ll never forget it. He turned and looked at the car and the whole car’s just shaking because Hector is barking and rocking the whole car. He turned around and looked back at me and said ‘I guess I’ll just go to jail today.’ He turned around and put his hands behind his back.”
In another memorable traffic stop in Lumpkin County, a box truck was stopped and the driver refused to admit there were drugs in his vehicle. Smith grabbed Hector and took him to use the bathroom before searching the car, and when the driver saw the large dog he quickly admitted to drugs being in his center console, Smith said.
“We got more drugs off the street probably because of Hector and he never got out of the car,” Smith said. “People could hear him bark when we pulled up on a traffic stop. You can ask anybody that works here. They knew when it was me that keyed up on the radio because he was barking in my ear. He got very, very excited when those blue lights came on because he knew there was a chance he was getting to come out of the car.
“You would be amazed at the people who would hand us drugs out the driver’s side window because they thought we would find it with the dog.”
Because of Hector’s strong bark and a bite to match, he helped rid the streets of crime across north Georgia.
Three months ago during a traffic stop at Dawson Forest Road, Hector’s presence played a role in acquiring over one ounce of methamphetamine.
And just last month during a car chase along Ga. 400 and Hwy. 53, Smith and Hector tracked and apprehended a suspect who tried to escape on foot in a subdivision.
But the job was never just about tracking felons and removing drugs from the streets.
Hector also searched and located missing persons, one of the most memorable being a 13-year-old girl with Down Syndrome who got lost in Lumpkin County, Smith said.
Smith and Hector would also get out in the community for demonstrations with Boy Scout troops, local elementary schools and community events like the annual Trunk-or-Treat at Rock Creek Park.
And when it was time to clock out, the good natured Hector would enjoy playing fetch with Smith and his young son, he said.
“It’s what we did for the citizens of Dawson County,” said Smith. “He loved working. That is what he did every day. I’m going to have a hard time finding another dog that liked to work as much as he did, serve the community like he did. That is what he loved to do. He was a good one.”
Johnson said that not everyone can be a K9 handler.
“You get placed in positions with your partner and with other ones where you’re looking out for each other and you have to put your trust in them. And you go through things together that kind of bring you closer so I can only imagine Zach and Hector, what kind of bond they shared even on duty,” Johnson said. “Not anybody can be canine handler. It takes a special person and it takes a committed person.”
Hector’s body is currently being examined at the University of Georgia for exact cause of death.
At this time, Johnson said they only know it is medically related and have speculated stroke or a heart condition. Johnson said he hopes they will have an exact cause of death in a few weeks.
A memorial service for Hector will be held at a later date.