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Honoring a very good girl

SHPD's first narcotics dog gets retirement sendoff (but no pizza)

Instead of taking a bite out of crime, a narcotics canine for the Sweet Home Police Department last week took a big bite out of cake.

Gemma, a Belgian Malinois that began training at the police department in 2017 when she was 3 years old, celebrated her retirement with friends – and the aforementioned confection – Wednesday, Aug. 31, at Sankey Park.

After five years serving the community as a public relations tool and drug detection dog, she was too doggone tired to continue working.

"She's at the age where most dogs end up retiring out of the canine program," Captain Jason Ogden said. "They start having a lack of drive."

Sasha McDonald, who started as Gemma's handler, previously told the New Era that Gemma originated from Holland and landed in a California kennel as a puppy before the Oregon State Police purchased her. Due to her high energy level, she was rehomed to a corrections deputy and passed to McDonald who, at the time, was initiating the canine program in Sweet Home.

Dog trainer Connie DeBusschere partnered with the police department for two years prior to COVID to hold a Cascade K9 Jamboree that both educated the community about responsible dog ownership, and served as a fundraiser for the canine program's expenses, which included training, transportation and veterinary costs.

During her tenure as Sweet Home's first narcotics canine, Gemma helped law enforcement locate 134 grams of heroin, 28 grams of cocaine, 741 grams of methamphetamine, three firearms and $21,735 in drug-related cash, Ogden said.

"She's a huge asset to the community in that we have problems here and she helps us fix the problem," said Officer Brian Prather, who's been Gemma's handler since February 2021 after McDonald changed careers.

"She's a great partner, probably the best partner you could ask for. She's kept me going, keeps me motivated. She's always got the energy when you need it, she's always there when you need her. I am sad to see her go, but she's gonna go to a good home."

And that home will be with McDonald, who's trained with Gemma for narcotics detection since Day One. But the dog has a dark side McDonald didn't share with Prather when he took over the canine program.

Ogden had no trouble spilling the beans.

"She's a thief," he said.

It's pizza she's been known to steal. Prather discovered Gemma's weakness after he left a partially-eaten pie on a counter to run an errand. When he returned, Prather said, the box was on the floor and every last bit of pizza was gone. Gemma had her ears down and gave him a look that told him it was her fault.

The dog didn't get any pizza for her retirement party, but she did get her own full-sized cake from Rachel Warren, who created the treat from a banana-cake mix designed for dogs with a peanut butter and cream cheese frosting and topped with blueberries and beef treat crumble.

Officer Sean Potter will probably always remember Gemma long after she's gone, not just because she's been a "helpful tool" in his work, but because he might still find bits of her left behind for a while.

"Once you start petting her it never ends," Potter said. "She'll just lean into you when you're petting her."

And then, after she'd walk away, he'd find fur and dander and "all sorts of stuff" all over him, he said.

The Sweet Home Police Department plans to continue the canine program and is working on replacing Gemma, but they're first trying to determine whether they will hire a narcotics or patrol dog.

"What I've learned is there are a lot of programs that are transitioning more to a patrol dog because a patrol dog is potentially more useful than a narcotics dog now with the ever-changing drug laws," he said.