On June 23, Joseph Duca got the news every animal owner dreads: Buck, a Belgian Malinois who was only about 5, was sick and unlikely to recover. Duca agreed the dog should be euthanized, but it was more than making a decision about a pet because Duca is a trooper with the Vermont State Police and he was the handler for K-9 Buck.
After Buck was gone, Duca, who is assigned to the Rutland barracks, said a retired trooper and K-9 handler came to his home to explain that he needed to share the loss he felt. Duca started by listening to his phone messages.
“So the first six voice mails I listened to were coworkers and friends and they were all crying on the phone, which I wasn’t expecting because I just kinda thought, ‘Hey, this is my dog. This is my thing to go through,’” Duca said.
“That retired trooper was right. I had to talk to other people about it because I wasn’t the only one upset and grieving. I wasn’t the only one who lost something,” he said. “Yeah, he might have been my dog, he might have lived with me, but it’s a big deal to a lot of people in Rutland County, southwestern Vermont. We went to calls all over the state.”
Duca said Buck had helped him reach people in a different way. He said many physical confrontation were avoided just because of Buck’s presence and the dog was especially effective in reaching children.
“He was the best part of this job because it got me to interact with people at a different level. I wasn’t just the trooper that’s just showing up when bad things happen,” Duca said. “I got to sort of be preventative. I got to go to the schools, the preschools, the day cares, I got to go to all these places, get these unique opportunities with people.”
A trooper since 2007, Duca said he spent a lot of time with a now-retired trooper, Cpl. Ed Hunter, and his K-9, Maximus.
“When they retired, I thought, ‘Hey this is something I’m interested in doing,’” Duca said.
By the time an appropriate dog was found — Buck came from Milton — it was 2013. However, Duca said he and Buck, who was then 9 months old, struggled to find a real bond for the first four or five months because they hadn’t bonded before they started their training.
Duca said he was willing to work hard to overcome that challenge.
“Being a K-9 handler isn’t just a 9-to-5, it’s a full lifetime commitment because it’s 24-7, 365 for the life of the dog, so we spent a ton of time together,” he said. “Every time he did something good, he got rewarded, whether it was play or treats or something like that.”
Duca said he took Buck everywhere. He said he took to joking that his truck was Buck’s truck. Buck slept next to Duca’s bed and became “ besties” with Duca’s girlfriend.
“The first year I had him, we were apart for maybe two days. If I went to the gas station to get a cup of coffee, he was in the gas station with me down at Stewart’s, sitting right next to me as I was pouring my coffee,” Duca said. “He went almost everywhere that I went. If he wasn’t in an establishment, he was probably out in the car waiting for me.”
While it took a while to develop an emotional bond, Duca said Buck was a professional from the start.
Buck was dual-certified in drug work and in patrol work — which includes tracking, area search, building search, evidence recovery and personal protection.
Asked about some of Buck’s best efforts, Duca talked about some of the earliest cases they handled. For instance, shortly after they went into the field in November 2013, they got a call to assist in the search of a woman who had been missing, during a snowstorm, for about 12 hours in western Rutland County.
Buck started “air scenting” and led them to a ravine. Duca said he was exhausted after several hours of searching and needed a break but knew a helicopter was on the way. He said he pointed to an area on the map and said to the pilot, “That’s where you need to start your search.”
Duca said he watched the helicopter fly in that direction and heard they found the woman right away.
“If it hadn’t been for the terrain, we probably would have had our first find on what was practically our first call,” he said.
A short time later, Duca was called to the scene of an assault by a group of people on a municipal police officer.
“When we got there, I opened my door, I reached back and I opened (Buck’s) door and someone yelled, ‘Police dog!’ and everyone ran,” he said.
Duca said the timely arrival earned a smile for the save from the municipal officer, even though the officer had been hurt.
“I could tell you stories all day long. I’ve been getting stories since this happened,” Duca said.
A K-9 is not just a dog riding with an officer, Duca said. Buck was a best friend who was attuned to his partner.
“Buck was very intuitive. I swear he could read my mind. I would think about something and then he’d do it,” he said.
If the Vermont State Police want Duca to handle another K-9, he said he would be ready.
“If it was up to me, absolutely, positively, I’m ready go now,” he said. “I 100 percent want to do that. I want to continue with what Buck taught me. I learned a ton from him.”