Canine colleagues gather to honour Nitro's courage

VANCOUVER — It began with a lone howl.

Then down the line of cars, dogs leaned out the windows to listen and the barking began.

Canine units from the United States and British Columbia proceeded through downtown Vancouver yesterday, as dogs howled in the backseat on their way to the Seaforth Armoury, to mourn the death of police dog Nitro.

The police canine died in the line of duty Jan. 23.

Nitro was set to retire this spring after developing arthritis in his elbows. But that didn't slow the German shepherd down as he chased two accused car thieves who jumped on a train in New Westminster.

When the train began moving, eight-year-old Nitro slipped under the wheels and was instantly killed.

Vancouver's police department hadn't expected Nitro's death to hit the public so hard.

Mourners from as far away as Britain began sending hundreds of e-mails and sympathy cards to the department. Nitro's death inspired some to write poetry and make crafts, such as wooden urns for the dog's handler, Constable Howard Rutter.

Others remembered beloved pets, posting pictures of their own dogs on the message board.

It was all a bit too much for one Vancouver newspaper columnist, who wrote that mourners were descending into emotional quicksand when they began comparing Nitro to a human being.

In response, Sergeant Mark Tonner made what he called a bold statement: that he is convinced all dogs go to heaven. "Yes, I said it," Sgt. Tonner wrote. "Does that mean Nitro is chasing bad guys through sunny meadows, young and arthritis-free?" No, Sgt. Tonner reminded mourners, "there aren't supposed to be any bad guys in Paradise."

His voice cracking with emotion, Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham said Nitro inspired a special kind of grief.

To those who say that Nitro's death was just that of a dog, Chief Graham said that's like saying it's just a husband or just a daughter.

"The stages of grief we feel over the loss of this great animal is not unlike the loss we would feel over the loss of a human partner," he said, as mourners nodded and wiped away tears.

The ceremony included more than 70 dogs paying tribute to Nitro, as their handlers led them to sit briefly in front of the memorial where the canine's badge, collar and urn were on display.

The piper leading the procession was almost drowned out by the barks and howls. Some of the mourners came during their lunch break wearing business suits and work uniforms. One woman carried white lilies with eight dog biscuits tied at the stem. More than 50 of the mourners purchased a $20 DVD about Nitro's life, which included images of his puppy days and a slow-motion montage of him running in a field.

Lorraine Mitchell, whose Rottweiler-shepherd mix, Moose, died three years ago, had tears in her eyes as she watched the procession pass on Burrard Street.

"I know there are some people who would think it is ridiculous to have this," she said. "But it's sad and real to many people, and it's a good thing that we can be so touched by a living being."

Nitro is being mourned not just as a pet, but as a police officer, said Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia psychology professor who has written extensively about dogs.

Prof. Coren believes that is because Nitro represented more than an officer and a pet when he died in the line of duty.

"This is a dog whose name we happen to know because he did something we all know our dogs would do for us, protecting us for no other reason than because of their loyalty," he said. "This dog suddenly became a dog to make us remember all other dogs."

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