Heroes come in all shapes and sizes -- and species. Nine-year-old K-9 Axel is a German Shepard with a resume that reads like the plot of a Bourne Identity/Air Bud mashup.
When he was just one-year-old, Axel was hand-picked to serve as a part of the ATF Special Response Team (SRT), a “premiere high-risk” apprehension group in the country. The team “apprehends America’s most dangerous criminals … they’re doing the search and arrest warrants that your local or state police can’t handle at their level,” Jason Johnson, Axel’s handler, explains.
During his seven years of service, Axel participated in over 200 missions across the nation. As Jason tells us, these are no ordinary missions. Axle and his handlers went into some of the most dangerous compounds in the country to bust illegal firearms trafficking, illicit liquor and tobacco trading, and investigate bomb and arson crimes.
Axel was trained to descend to his missions from a helicopter, rappel off buildings, to track criminals in rural, inhospitable settings. “He does all the cool stuff that you’d think the highest level government agencies do,” Jason says. The work Axel did was honorable, but the stakes were high. His missions involved going into places with heavily armed, dangerous criminals who often had aggressive dogs. Axel’s SRT counterpart, K-9 Nash, was shot and killed while executing a high-risk warrant in 2012. Jason explained that it’s not unusual for these highly trained K-9’s to be killed in the line of duty, serving their country.
Though Axel did not pay the ultimate price, his years of service took a toll. He had to retire at age eight because of health problems, which include Pannus, Megaesophagus, and severe Allergies.
This is where Jason Johnson comes in. After five years in the military, he joined the civilian police ranks and started volunteering to become a bite decoy, eventually earning a position as a handler and then a trainer at the Yakima Police Department in Washington state. In 2008, he left the police department to begin working as an Explosive Detection K-9 Handler and Trainer under the Department of State’s “High-Threat Protection Detail” -- protecting American diplomats, being assigned to the U.S. Ambassador’s protection detail, as well as conducting red-zone missions for the Department of Defense, other governmental agencies, and foreign dignitaries. He served all over Iraq and Afghanistan as the Lead K-9 Handler used in the 2008 Iraq Presidential Elections and the 2009 Afghanistan Presidential Elections.
In 2010, Jason was selected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to be a course developer and instructor to train explosive detection K-9’s at their national academy in Virginia. He was member of a mobile training unit who trained over 1,200 military working dog teams in homemade explosives, before they deployed overseas. He was also a Field Canine Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, training and mentoring over 2,000 K-9 teams across the country throughout his entire career.
Though dogs like Axel and other K-9 heroes often “seize millions of dollars of drugs” during their careers, once they retire, there’s no funding to keep them healthy and happy for the rest of their lives, and many of the conditions common in K-9 heroes are expensive.
Jason founded Project K-9 Hero as a solution to this problem. As a citizen, it frustrated and saddened him that dogs who gave so much ended up having so little in retirement. Ideally, Jason proposes that 3-5 percent of the money from the seizures the dogs help with go into a fund that could be available for medical expenses in their retirement. Until that happens on the legislative level, though, Jason has taken it upon himself to secure that care.
Project K-9 Hero makes it their mission to “protect those who protected our families, communities, and our America.” They cover medical and food expenses for retired military working dogs and police K-9 heroes. They provide up to $3,000 per year for each of the K-9’s they sponsor, money raised entirely through donations. Donations that don’t pay anyone a salary, including Jason, who volunteers more than 50 hours a week to make his dream a reality.
Even within this group of elite dogs, K-9 Axel is special. Most of the dogs that Project K-9 Hero support stay with their handlers even in retirement. But after Axel’s service, his handler could no longer keep him in the same house as his new K-9 working partner due to Axel’s alpha personality. He is so highly specialized that he couldn’t be placed in a normal home -- so, Project K-9 Hero adopted him to be one of their Ambassadors.
Project K-9 Hero now sees it as their mission to provide for Axel, who provided so much for our country. Part of that includes covering his prescriptions, which cost over $500 a month, as well as food, which is $100, and vet visits, which each might cost upward of $600.
Pannus has been the easiest and cheapest of Axel’s problems to treat through the use of daily eye drops and the addition of Rex Specs for his outdoor activities. Pannus is caused by an abnormal layer of tissue over the cornea and cannot be cured. But, wearing Rex Specs keeps the UV rays out of his eyes and ultimately helps keep him from going blind, “Even though most people think they’re just a stylish accessory,” Jason adds.
Axel’s other health issues are more complicated. Megaesophagus “leads to a hole or trap in his esophagus from acid and food can get stuck there,” Jason explains. “He was throwing up white, foamy marshmallow stuff” until they got the diagnosis.
The dermatitis is also a challenge--it led to a staph infection, which required expensive vet visits.
Many handlers wouldn’t be able to pay for these expenses alone. “They’re not getting any extra money for that,” Jason says, “That doesn’t happen … that’s money that’s taken your of your family’s pocket, your kid’s college education.”
That can be a stressful and painful choice for handlers.
Jason believes that shouldn’t have to be a choice they have to make. “We want to make sure all retired working dogs are getting the treatment they need regardless of the bill.”
**UPDATE on 6/24 for K9 Axel** - Axel was recently made a trip to the vet where he was diagnosed with cancer.
"A few days ago we received K-9 Axel’s cytology report, which confirmed that he has metastatic carcinoma on both the left and right side of his lungs. Due to the number of nodules surgery is not an option for Axel.
We are choosing to go the holistic route with him while he is showing no signs of illness from his cancer at this time. Rather than putting him through chemo therapy while he is still healthy we are going to try to remedy his lungs naturally.
Regardless of how many missions he was on or how many lives our K-9 Heroes save they receive no funding once they retire. Due to Axel’s diagnosed Megaesophogus, Pannus, Dermititis, and now Lung Cancer, his care was over $10,000.00 this past year of retirement."
Axel is not the only remarkable Project K-9 Hero Ambassador. We recently wrote an article about Jason’s other hero, K-9 Flash. Rescued from the streets of Everett, Washington, she went from homeless and sick to scoring a perfect 100% in her initial certification, the only K-9 in the entire class to get that score.
During her long career, she was deployed over 3,000 times, and helped in 2,200 Narcotic-related finds. She was the dog that inspired Jason to start Project K-9 Hero -- it didn’t seem right that she would live her retirement without proper care.
Now, Flash is a top three finalist for the American Humane Hero Dog of the Year in Law Enforcement. Until July 11th, people can vote for her once a day to win, and demonstrate gratitude for all she’s accomplished in her life. All finalist dogs receive $2,500 to their charity partners, and the American Hero Dog winner will receive an additional $5,000.
But Jason’s not in the contest for the money -- he’s doing it to try to bring awareness to the need for funding retired military and police K-9’s after their years of service to us.
So Flash receiving an award is not about accolades, Jason says, but about this dream of helping “all police dogs across America … Project K-9 Hero is a lot more than just a foundation. We are trying to change laws; I’m trying to change the way police and working dogs are treated in retirement forever.”
Let’s all try to help Jason and other retired working dogs by making sure Flash wins the American Humane Hero Dog Awards, Law Enforcement Dog of the Year title so they can continue to fight for better retirements for our nation’s retired K-9 Heroes. You can help by voting every day for her between now and July 11th. To learn more about the Project K-9 Hero Foundation and the amazing work they’re doing to help our most loved companions, visit their website at www.projectk9hero.org.