A fine time to have to break in a rookie, policeman Danny Miller thought as he cruised past the small office buildings on the outskirts of town. It was a bitter night in December 1988, just two months since he had been introduced to his new partner.
“Keep a sharp lookout,” Miller told him, glancing toward the back seat. In the dim light, Miller could just make out the shield glimmering smartly from his partner’s collar: Badge No. 85. The rookie was a husky German shepherd named Olden.
Suddenly the cruiser’s headlights illuminated a figure breaking the lock on a building. Miller screeched to a halt and shouted the command “Go!” In a flash Olden bounded through the car’s open window and was off, his deep bark reverberating through the night.
The chase ended seconds later as Olden nipped the suspect on the buttocks. Within moments, Miller arrived on a scene he will never forget: a trembling burglar standing at attention before a growling canine.
Back at the station, Miller felt a surge of pride as he came to the line marked “arresting officer” and typed “Badge 85.” Pretty good, Miller mused. But as he reached down to give Olden a brief pat, he had a more somber thought: Next time it might not be this easy.
When Danny Miller joined the 35-member force in 1978, Altus, Okla., was a sleepy place where pickup trucks crowded the local shopping district and businessmen strolled the town square in cowboy boots. As the drug trade moved in, the number of crimes rose rapidly. Police ChiefJim Hughes had asked the city council for a larger force. In the spring of 1988, he broke the news to his department: the request had been approved-not for several more officers, but for police dogs.
The decision amazed no one more than Capt. Ron Myers, who well remembered the disastrous K-9 program Altus had tried 15 years earlier. Locally trained German shepherds had proved uncontrollable, attacking innocents without warning. Eventually, the program had been abandoned. / wonder who the lucky cop will be, Myers thought, shaking his head.
Chief Hughes chose Danny Miller, who he knew had worked for a dog trainer after serving in Vietnam. Miller was intrigued by the chance to handle such a powerful animal, but he also had misgivings. In a tough situation, could he trust the dog with his life?
“Don’t Get Too Close.” That autumn, Miller stood in a parking lot waiting to meet his new partner. A van pulled up, and the biggest German shepherd he’d ever seen leaped from the back. He’s beautiful! Miller thought, stroking the animal’s coarse hair.
The dog, two years old and 110 pounds, was the product of fastidious breeding and training. Born near Reinheim, Germany, he came from 25 generations of German shepherds known for their strength, courage, good temper and intelligence. The canine left Germany with the highest level of “protection dog” training, Schutzhund III, able to obey dozens of commands. He could climb ladders, sprint 40 miles an hour, sniff out narcotics and take down a 270-pound man.
“His name’s Olden,” said Oscar Hall, the Tulsa trainer who had imported the dog. “Take him to live with you. Groom him. But remember, he’s not a pet. You may have to send him to his death to save someone’s life-maybe yours. So don’t get too close.”
As Miller drove home with Olden sitting calmly in the back seat, Hall’s final words rang ominously in his ears: “Danny, it’s better if you come back from work alone than if Olden does.”
Over the next few months, Miller kept his relationship with Olden strictly professional. The dog was fed no table scraps. He was kept out of the bedroom. He spent his nights outside, regardless of the weather. Sometimes during storms, Olden would poke his nose out of his doghouse and bark at the back door. Miller pretended not to hear.
Day after day, Miller raced the dog around the back yard to build his stamina-after all, Olden was a soldier in training. To test Olden’s discipline, he’d give him the order to “Stay”-and then he’d leave. Once Miller took a half-hour walk. When he returned, Olden was still glued to the spot where he had left him. At that moment Miller wanted to give Olden a hug, but instead, quietly said, “Attaboy,” and scratched him briefly behind the ears.
At the station, the other officers thought the latest addition to the force was a joke. They would elbow one another as Miller passed with Olden padding right behind. Myers saw only another catastrophe waiting to happen.
To Altus residents, however, Olden’s massive black snout poking out the rear window of Miller’s patrol car became a comforting sight. Shopkeepers slipped the police dog snacks. And Miller invited curious schoolchildren to stroke Olden’s head and neck.
On the Beat. One night while patrolling a desolate street, Miller jumped from his squad car. Two burly drug users were swinging wildly at each other. As Miller struggled to pull the men apart, they turned on him. Dodging their blows, Miller felt a sudden alarm. Why did I leave Olden in the car?
Just then, a familiar bark shook the air. Olden had heard Miller’s shouts and leaped from the cruiser’s window. After a few deep growls from Olden, the two men backed away.
To respond to another call, Miller had to let his attackers run off. “They’ll put the word out on the street about you,” Miller said, patting Olden’s head.
By the spring of 1989, Olden had racked up an impressive number of arrests. One afternoon, after a foot chase that spanned several city blocks, a burglar tossed a set of car keys into a vast, scrubby field. When the officers on the scene couldn’t find the keys, they called in Olden. The dog zigzagged through the brush, then stopped short and pawed the ground. Officers found the keys lodged in the undergrowth and were then able to arrest the thief.
When a police call was triggered late one night by a silent alarm at the Altus High School, Olden tracked from room to shadowy room, with Miller following, hot on the intruder’s trail. Moments later, Miller heard terrified screams as a thug, flushed by Olden, fled through a rear door to a nearby park. He ran straight into the arms of police officers, Olden snarling and snapping at his heels.
You’re the best dog in the world, Miller thought. I just wish I could let you know that.
On May 21, just after Miller and Olden began their 6 p.m. shift, an urgent call came over the radio. “Shots fired, 720 North Park Avenue.” Miller flicked on the siren.
As he pulled up to the house, a white car sped away. Behind the wheel was Steve Madden, a young hospital employee who had just shot his girlfriend to death.
Miller chased Madden through intersection after intersection at 90 m.p.h. finally the suspect swerved down a side street and abandoned his car. Miller jumped out of his cruiser and raced past garbage cans into an alley.
Turning a corner, Miller expected to see a man running headlong for freedom. Instead, he found the barrels of a pistol pointing right at his chest. Miller was trapped.
A Partner’s Sacrifice. He braced for the jolt as Madden squeezed the trigger. But suddenly a thundering bark rang out and Olden burst around the corner, tearing straight for Madden. The gunmen fired and fled.
The bullet caught Olden in the face, spinning him backward and dropping him on his side. The slug bore through Olden’s cheek, burst out his neck and buried itself in his shoulder. Blood spurted from the wounds.
It took a split second for Miller to react. Olden has just made the ultimate sacrifice, he thought. As his partner lay panting, Miller whispered, “It’ll be all right.” Then he went after Madden.
The suspect was now running across an open area behind a house. Officers Scott Young and Bob Carder had arrived, and the three cops exchanged shots with Madden. Finally, Miller felled Madden with a shot in the side.
Miller heard rustling from behind. He and the other officers watched in disbelief as Olden, dripping blood, staggered to the gunman and growled at him.
Miller scooped Olden up and placed him gently on the back seat of the patrol car. Then he sped toward the animal hospital, siren blaring, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please don’t die on me, buddy,” he said.
At the hospital, as Olden was prepared for surgery, Miller was ushered out of the room. He feared he’d never see his brave partner again. Veterinarian Ronny Kiehn could promise nothing.
Back at the station, the mood was somber. Miller stayed there the rest of the night, mechanically answering questions from his superiors about the shooting. Occasionally a passing officer would put his hand on Miller’s shoulder and say he wished Olden well. “We’re pulling for him, Danny,” Captain Myers said softly. “We all are.”
At the hospital the next morning, Miller found Olden lying on a table, his shoulder and face shaved bare. Stitches jutted from the closed wounds. “The bullet missed his jugular vein by a fraction of an inch,” Kiehn said. “He’s lucky to have made it this far, but he’s not in the clear yet.”
Miller stroked Olden’s face and watched his eyes open slightly. The vet then dropped a piece of lead into Miller’s palm. “You might want this,” he said. Miller looked down at the bullet. This was meant for me, he thought.
As Miller began to walk out, Olden struggled to get up from the table and follow his master. But his torn body could barely move. “Danny, he wants to be with you,” the vet said. “Take him home.”
In the days that followed, Miller dressed the dog’s wounds, made sure he ate and carried him outside. Soon it was clear to Miller that Olden was going to live.
His joy was tempered, though, when trainer Hall told him, “Gunshot wounds can destroy a police dog’s effectiveness. He may be too gun-shy to be of use. If that happens, we’ll have to remove him from police duty.”
No! thought Miller. He’s my partner. He belongs here with me. There was only one hope for keeping Olden on the force: the dog would have to pass a test to see if he could still perform his job.
Crucial Moment. Just weeks after the shooting, Miller drove Olden to an abandoned military base to re-create the scene of the shooting. Several officers stood by nervously.
Then Hall signaled the beginning of the test. Olden followed all orders, running down a long corridor and jumping out a window. But then an officer layered in padding dashed out, leveling a .38 revolver. As Olden advanced, the officer fired twice close to the dog’s face. Olden froze.
“C’mon, buddy,” Miller said quietly. “Please do this for me.” He re-commanded Olden to attack. A second later, the dog leaped at the gunman, now ignoring the gun in the officer’s hand. The officers broke into applause.’ “Miller,” Hall said, grinning, “you’ve got your partner back.”
At home, Miller led Olden to his pen. Suddenly he stopped. There was something he’d been wanting to do ever since he saw Olden more than a year before. And now was the time to do it. Crouching down, Miller wrapped his arms around Olden and hugged him. Then the two started rolling around in the soft grass. Olden barked and barked, his tail thumping.
As the two romped, Miller heard Oscar Hall’s warning: “It’s better if you come back alone.” Maybe so, Miller thought, but nothing beats coming back together.
Today, because of Olden, shooting a police dog during the commission of a crime is a felony in Oklahoma, carrying a sentence of up to two years. Olden and Danny Miller remain partners. Miller wears the slug that hit Olden on a chain around his neck.
This article originally appeared in the May 1992 issue of Reader’s Digest.