More Than Just a Dog

“It was just a dog.” When I heard that off-handed comment, I was angry, sad.

Rocco was not just a dog, he was a hero. He was a member of the Pittsburgh Police Department’s K-9 unit and worked side-by-side with his fellow police officer/handler Phil Lerza.

The dog died this week after being stabbed by a convicted sex offender who was trying to elude police. The incident happened so quickly that there was no time for Rocco to be outfitted with a safety vest as is the case when time allows in such police action. Rocco took the swipe of the knife, saving the life of Lerza and other officers in the pursuit of the criminal. The bad guy was caught, but not before four other officers were injured.

When Rocco was taken from the veterinary office where he died to his final resting place, officers lined the hallway and saluted their fallen brother. Officer Lerza could not hold back the tears for the dog who never, ever let him down.

During World War II, military working dogs earned medals and suffered injuries and death completing dangerous missions for our military and to protect our freedoms.

In Vietnam, military working dogs stuck by their fellow soldiers under the most extreme and life-threatening conditions in the foreign jungles of Southeast Asia. Sadly, when our troops were heading home, the dogs were left behind or destroyed because they were considered “excess equipment.” If the dog’s military handler wanted to take his dog home, he would have had to pay a cost-prohibitive shipping fee. Most handlers had their dogs put down rather than see them handed over to the Vietnamese.

Thankfully today our military working dogs are valued even after their tours of duty are completed. They have proven their worth in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of human lives spared by the actions of these dogs probably cannot be counted. They now are permitted to “retire” and return home to the welcoming arms of adopted families. Monuments have been erected for the military working dogs and rightfully so.

You don’t have to be a dog lover to appreciate the goodness of military and police dogs. We should respect their contributions to our lives. And don’t forget the hundreds of service dogs who devote their lives to helping people with disabilities. Without them, special needs folks could not take a walk in the park, visit a shopping mall or live independently.

Maybe you never had a dog of your own. I was lucky to have had many in my life whose only demand on me was love. In return I received love and devotion, a companion when alone or afraid and a faithful friend to lean on after a trying day.

Our animal shelters are filled with canine friends waiting to be adopted, to love and cto are for someone. But whatever you do, please don’t tell me they’re “just dogs.”

Heather Ziegler can be reached at