‘A remarkable team’
Russ Hess remembered one of the first times he saw canine officer Tracker and the oversized sable German shepherd’s handler, Terry Fleck. The pair were in a compact rental car to attend a training seminar in Canton, Ohio.
“Tracker took up more than half the car,” said Hess, executive director for the United States Canine Association. “He definitely needed a bigger car, but I guess that’s all they had.”
After about 10 years working together at the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department and traveling around the country for seminars, Fleck, retired, is now without his partner who passed away last month from heart failure.
Tracker was Fleck’s third canine partner, coming after Dirk and Blazer. Tracker’s disposition, Fleck said, had bits of Dirk’s “all business” attitude and Blazer’s knack for geniality.
“He was very social and I think that’s what the community will remember best of him,” Fleck said. “He just reached out and touched a bunch of people’s hearts. Although when he was working you would literally think he was a different dog.
“I’ve never seen that before. He had the best of both personalities. That’s why I think I was closer to him than my other dogs.”
Usually Tracker’s bark never led to a bite. His mere presence – at 100 pounds he was at least 15 pounds heavier than the average police canine – would sway a suspected criminal to surrender.
“His defusing situations, that is really what he was known for,” Fleck said.
The two first met in New Hampshire at a breeder’s home when Tracker, then named Max or a similar general moniker, was 7 months old. Fleck had looked over about half a dozen dogs that would replace the retiring Blazer.
Fleck tested how the young dog would relate to stress by staring him in the eyes, taking different stances and other challenges.
The dog, so to speak, never blinked.
“He would hold the gaze. He would just hold his own,” Fleck said. “He was very, very strong, although he would not take it beyond that point. He was a very stable dog. He would tolerate anything.”
The same could be said for Fleck.
23 years as dog handler
The 56-year-old spent 27 years in law enforcement with 23 of them as a dog handler and trainer. His resume, printed from his Web site, http://www.k9fleck.org, is nine pages long. He holds a doctorate in criminal justice and is an expert on the legalities regarding the use of canine officers.
He jokes when he is contacted to testify on cases involving canine officers. The cases end up being settled before going to trial.
“Terry is a wealth of information,” Hess said. “He’s almost a walking database of canine and canine cases.”
When Taser stun guns became a common law enforcement tool, Fleck conducted a test on how canine officers would react to combating a criminal who was hit with the high-voltage darts.
Using Tracker and a human volunteer, Fleck discovered the dog would simply stop combating the person as the Taser went through its cycle. He also found the dog became excited about the Taser’s clicking sound, perhaps associating the sound to something good happening.
Flecks’ published report squashed speculation police canines would absorb some of the Taser’s energy and possibly be ruined for work.
Put Fleck and Tracker together, and a highly effective crime-fighting team was created in the same vein as the human-dog partner movie “Turner and Hooch,” without the comedy, dog slobber and Tom Hanks.
Well, maybe with the comedy.
“He and Terry were quite the pair,” Hess said. “I think they both wanted to be boss, but they (complemented) their personalities quite well.”
Bob Eden, who runs Eden Consulting Group which trains police canines and handlers, recalled Tracker’s human tendencies in bossing other dogs around or hogging space on the front seat or hotel bed.
“It was just little head games that he’d play with you all the time,” said Eden. “It was like hanging out with a comedian. Just things he used to pull like that were very intriguing.”
In the first weeks of 2002, rat poison was tossed in Fleck’s backyard. After learning the dog consumed the fatal poison, Fleck induced Tracker to vomit. Investigators believed someone with a grudge attempted to kill the dog, but no arrests were made and the case remains open.
Hampered by a shoulder injury during the last leg of his career with the sheriff’s department, Fleck was assigned to light duty at the South Lake Tahoe branch of the county jail.
It was during his shift when Mary Hochstetter walked into the jail with a loaded gun in November 2004, telling Fleck at the front desk she intended to shoot an inmate who reportedly raped her daughter.
He was awarded the Medal of Valor for disarming Hochstetter and stopping the planned attack. He retired from the department six months later and now uses his time to consult and teach.
As for Tracker, who had his own trading card with the department, Fleck said the dog enjoyed retirement with walks and lazy days. On the morning of July 25, a Tuesday, Tracker went to a spot he had never visited to lie down. His battle with fluid in his lungs and a faltering heart ended when he passed away at a little more than 12 years old.
Most police dogs live until 10 years old. Fleck said he felt “very, very fortunate” Tracker had those extra years.
“To me it was a blessing and that’s probably the best word for it,” he said.
A fund for a memorial marker to remember Tracker and other police dogs is being established by Sgt. Don Atkinson, president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of El Dorado County.
“Terry Fleck and Tracker were a remarkable team. … Our deputy sheriffs share Terry’s loss with him, but Tracker’s service to our community will not be forgotten,” Atkinson said.