Barney, the Tacoma police dog, went from stray to star

Barney just wanted to play ball.

That desire and his rabid refusal to let go of the tennis balls tossed for him are what landed the black Lab mix with the Tacoma Police Department as a narcotics dog five years ago.

Barney, who was fatally injured during a drug raid last week, was found wandering the streets of North Bend in 2010 and taken to an animal shelter. Officer Tim Fredericks, who was in charge then of selecting and training K-9s for the department, drove out to see him.

An employee initially said Barney wasn’t suited for adoption because a staff member was bitten after sticking a hand in Barney’s mouth while trying to retrieve a tennis ball. Fredericks wasn’t deterred — he needed a dog who loved playing ball because that’s the reward for narcotics dogs. He took Barney behind the kennels to play fetch.

Fredericks lobbed the first ball, and Barney zoomed after it. He refused to give it over, so Fredericks decided to throw a second ball, assuming Barney would drop the first. The dog didn’t. Instead, he managed to cradle both fuzzy yellow balls in his slobbery mouth.

Fredericks took a chance on a third ball, positive this would give him the upper hand.

But Barney loped after the ball and pounced on it with both paws, still with the other two in his mouth.

“I couldn’t pick him up and put him in the truck fast enough,” Fredericks recalled. “He got the best of me on Day One, and I could never fool him. Ever. He was our wonder dog.”

In the course of his 5-year career, Barney located 236 pounds of illegal narcotics and $1.8 million in cash, according to police statistics.

The 11-year-old dog died Wednesday after accidentally inhaling a fatal dose of methamphetamine while searching a storage unit in Puyallup. He is the third Tacoma police dog to die in the line of duty and the 13th in the state. Police will hold a private memorial service for Barney at an undisclosed date.

Police Chief Don Ramsdell also is expected to honor Barney with the Ryker award, which is a posthumous award granted to Tacoma police dogs who die on the job. It was named after the department’s first K-9, who died Dec. 26, 1982, after being struck by a car while tracking a suspected robber.

About one in 25 dogs surveyed for police work make it onto the force, Fredericks said.

When Barney bounded into their lives, K-9 handler Henry Betts was already working with a trainee dog named Bear. After watching the two dogs do practice searches for narcotics, Betts conceded that Barney was the best dog for the job.

Police quickly learned to trust Barney’s nose, even when they couldn’t find any sign of drugs themselves.

There was the time Barney found a stash of narcotics hidden directly next to a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, but paid no mind to the food.

And the time police hid drugs in a car that had been seized months before for K-9 training practice. Barney kept alerting on the dashboard, where officers had not hidden narcotics. Eventually they gave in and pulled apart the dashboard and found heroin hidden in the steering column.

He once checked for narcotics in a vehicle where the back seats had been ripped out and alerted on the metal floor. Officers searched the floorboards and underneath the car but couldn’t find drugs, so they took the vehicle to a mechanic. Turns out there were secret compartments beneath the floor that held 5½ kilos of heroin, cocaine and meth and $538,000 in cash.

He had a miscue occasionally.

Police recalled the time Barney was searching a home and briefly touched his nose to a water valve on the back of a toilet. The attached pipe was so rusted that it burst, flooding the apartment.

“Barney was a character, but boy was he driven,” Fredericks said.

Betts and Barney went to serve a search warrant on a storage unit March 24, where a suspected drug trafficker was thought to be hiding large quantities of meth. When the dog found the narcotics, he touched his nose to them to alert Betts, as he was trained to do.

The handler spotted residue on Barney’s nose and rushed him to a Tacoma veterinarian, where the dog was treated for seizures and hyperthermia. Although Barney initially appeared to be on the mend, he died the following night.

Pierce County prosecutors are still deciding whether to add charges based on Barney’s death against two men arrested as a result of the narcotics raid during which the dog was sickened. The men currently are charged with drug possession with intent to deliver. Police said they found 44 pounds of meth while serving the search warrant.

Tacoma police have not yet discussed when they will try to find a dog to take over for Barney, who was the department’s sole narcotics K-9.

“He will be tough to replace,” Fredericks said.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune