If you think you can't teach an old dog new tricks, then Joaquin Guerrero’s obedience classes will prove you wrong.
The Saginaw County Animal Control Officer said the secret to getting man's best friend to behave is good, old-fashioned patience.
“Because if you don't have patience, you're gonna’ learn patience. Because that dog is gonna’ get into your skin. He's gonna’ pull everything and anything outta you that irritates you the most,” Guerrero said.
From police K-9s to pets, he's spent more than 20 years training dogs. He even trains at his very own facility, Apache Acres, in Hemlock.
“All work on verbal praise, we work on hand signals, verbal commands, gestures, and praise. No food reward, just positive reinforcement,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero’s not one to turn down a challenge, even if it means completely rebuilding Saginaw Police Department's K-9 Unit from the ground up.
“At that time, I was assigned to the FBI working on the Federal Gang Task Force, and it actually was a sergeant of mine that had talked me into it, because I had heard that they were going to be re-starting the K-9 program they hadn't had in 20 years,” Guerrero said.
Like most police officers, Guerrero had a partner, but his had four legs.
Rookie never left his side.
“You're bringin' your work home. It's 24/7. It's like having a child. Your responsibility is not only to yourself, but now you have a partner that you have to take care of,” Guerrero said.
It means never clocking out.
“I was doing a lot of going into the schools and doing demos. I created that program, Precinct 131, a substance abuse program to say no to gangs, drugs, guns and violence,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero said it’s how he managed to keep a clear head, despite the heartache he would see on the job.
“Ya gotta’ have a balance of doing something positive 'cause there is a lot of good people out there,” he said.
While Rookie may have been a partner and a dog, he also proved to be quite the friend.
“It's a bond that most people don't understand,” Guerrero said.
The bond got the powerful pair through the biggest tragedy the nation has ever seen.
After September 11, 2001, Guerrero got on the phone with emergency crews in New York right away.
“You could do all the training you want and have gone through everything like that, but to be able to say you were ready for that. No,” Guerrero said.
He wanted to help and he had a resource that could rescue and recover – Rookie.
"It literally dropped me to my knees. Like oh my God, to see that mound of destruction. Sixteen acres, 40-foot high pile, seven stories-deep hole. The smells. The odors. And Rookie was a workhorse. He worked hard. He would not quit. That dog just kept goin' and goin’. It's like he knew we had a purpose,” Guerrero said.
After over a week of a grueling search sifting through smoldering rubble, the pair had served that purpose.
“You're goin' there and they're lookin' at you as a hero. I wasn't a hero. Heroes are the ones that ran into that building,” Guerrero said.
The time spent there would impact Rookie long after they returned home.
“We were all being tested when we got back. What we thought to be an abscessed tooth turned out to be a tumor the size of a lemon. It just went from there,” Guerrero said.
What Rookie was exposed to during his Ground Zero search likely caused him to develop cancer and he had to be put down.
Guerrero then worked alongside another K-9 he'd trained, named Rookie II, until he hung up the leash for good and retired in 2011.
He wouldn't be away for long, though.
While working part-time for the Saginaw County Sheriff's Office, animal control needed someone just like him - an experienced dog handler and a leader.
“They were saying, we're short-handed. They had no director at that time, there was only two officers,” Guerrero said.
Now, nearly two years later, that’s where you can find Guerrero today. He’s using his role to connect with his community behind barbed wire and locked doors.
One thing is the same, though, a canine companion is on the new journey with him, too. In fact, there are six of them.
Click here to see raw video from behind the scenes.
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