Tony Norman: Rocco's tribute was a wonderment to some

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An estimated 1,200 people turned out for Rocco's funeral at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum last week.

By human standards, the German shepherd's send-off would have been considered massive. By dog standards, it was unprecedented. No other K-9 injured or killed in the line of duty in Pennsylvania ever got a funeral like Rocco's.

For more than a week, the local media engaged in a fierce competition to satisfy the public's insatiable taste for Rocco-related stories. Though born and raised a dog, Rocco was boosted to honorary human police officer status after succumbing to his wounds.

His colleagues on the Pittsburgh police department routinely referred to him as a K-9 officer, with barely any reference to the fact that he was canine. The media dutifully followed the officers' lead, often going out of their way to blur the lines between our species in a rush to honor Rocco.

Meanwhile, in the circles I travel in, the most common sentiment uttered last week was: "I'm sorry he's dead, but Rocco was a dog." It was not meant disparagingly. As complaints go, it was often whispered because no one wanted to be overheard making a reference to Rocco that wasn't entirely laudatory.

The other sentiment I encountered last week in the lead-up to the funeral was much more provocative: "It wasn't like Rocco had exercised free will to be a hero or not. He did what he was trained to do. We should reserve the word 'hero' for those with the capacity to choose self-sacrificing action over cowardice or apathy."

The amount of coverage of Rocco's untimely death -- including that in the Post-Gazette -- was mentioned almost everywhere I went last week. No one called the coverage unseemly exactly, but it was often called excessive. Even PG political cartoonist Rob Rogers, who can reliably be counted on to offer a contrarian view on almost everything, penned a genuinely sentimental cartoon in honor of Rocco.

One of my colleagues, a fellow dog lover, said that the Rocco story struck a chord because whatever one's view of police and their tactics in any given neighborhood, it is difficult to find people who don't like dogs. YouTube probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for our tendency to anthropomorphize our pets' behavior. A cat playing a piano is one of the most viewed videos in history.

Heartwarming videos of dogs going bonkers greeting their masters returning from stints in Iraq and Afghanistan garner millions of hits, "likes" and tweets on social media. It is impossible to witness such deep cross-species friendship in these videos without shedding a tear if you're a dog lover.

Because of Rocco, dog stories of every iteration got big play in this newspaper and elsewhere last week. We heard about Colonel, a British-trained Belgian Malinois serving as a "working dog" in Afghanistan. Colonel was captured by the Taliban during a fire fight with NATO forces and trotted out in a propaganda video last week. Reports from Sochi that hundreds of dogs and cats found wandering the Olympic village would be rounded up and executed by Russian authorities prompted a Facebook campaign and the intervention of a Russian billionaire who is using his resources to help the animals.

Then in Sunday's Post-Gazette there was the somewhat ironic story, given the adulation of Rocco the previous week, detailing how police officers across the country sometimes shoot dogs belonging to criminal suspects. Videos of such deadly encounters quickly go viral and generate millions of views on YouTube.

Usually in such cases, the officer lacks training on how to deal with civilian dogs and shoots them because he or she feels vaguely threatened, even if the dog looks like Lassie. Juries are returning five- and six-figure judgments against cities sued over such cases. The killing of a family dog in Colorado resulted in that state passing a law mandating that police develop a training program for dealing with dogs.

Because dogs are in an estimated 47 percent of American homes, this isn't an abstract issue. Dogs that don't have Rocco's law enforcement pedigree are still members of someone's family and deserve as much consideration. Besides, K-9 dogs have no compunction about biting people, whether criminals or lawful protesters, but most ordinary dogs do.

As the owner of a lovely, super-affectionate 9-year-old pit bull named Leila, I'm very conscious of the baggage a dog carries because of its breed. Leila has never bitten anyone, but there's an assumption that she's anything but a well-behaved dog. She's never sniffed out bombs or run down a drug dealer, but she's still a "hero" to me.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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