Pet Tales: Protective K-9 vests will honor Rocco




Hundreds of police dogs across the country will soon be wearing bullet- and stab-protective vests embroidered with these words: "In Memory of K-9 Rocco, Pittsburgh Police Department."

A New England-based nonprofit raised more than $120,000 in the first three days of a national campaign to get protective body armor -- and Rocco's name -- on dogs that serve as police officers.

The Jan. 30 death of the 8-year-old German shepherd inspired the campaign that runs through March 5. The dog was stabbed Jan. 28 while helping Pittsburgh police officers make an arrest.

"The grief was felt nationwide," said Sandy Marcal, president and founder of Vested Interest in K-9s Inc.

Social media spread the word about Rocco's service, his death and the touching funeral attended by 1,200 people, she said. Since 2009, the 501(c)3 organization based in East Taunton, Mass., has bought vests for 585 law enforcement dogs in 39 states. Earlier this month, vests were given to North Huntingdon Police Department dogs named Vegas, Colt and Nero.

Vested Interest has teamed with Groupon, the deal-of-the-day website, for the Rocco donation tribute. The K-9 officer's death "is a terrible tragedy, but his name will live forever," Ms. Marcal said. "It has raised awareness" of the need for K-9 protective vests, which many police departments can't afford to buy.

Go to www.groupon.com/k9s by March 5 to purchase a Groupon tax-deductible donation. The suggested donation is $10. K-9 vests purchased with money donated Feb. 15-March 5 will be embroidered with the Rocco tribute. The vests should be available in early June. Donations also can be mailed to Box 9, East Taunton, Mass. 02718.

Pictures and names of dogs that receive vests are posted on the Facebook page, Vested Interest in K-9s Inc. Vests generally cost $2,500, but Ms. Marcal said her nonprofit can get them for $950 each.

The nonprofit Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh has raised more than $5,200 in Rocco's memory, and it is "working directly with the mayor's office and the chief of police" to decide how to spend the money, said spokesman Chris Bryan. The organization works to improve the quality of life for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.

The police dog's life and death continues to attract media attention, which is bad news for the people who write snarky online comments and call talk radio hosts to complain that there have been too many stories about "just a dog."

Rocco will be inducted into the Amen Corner Law Enforcement Hall of Fame at the local Amen Corner Senator John Heinz Law Enforcement Awards luncheon at Station Square Oct. 31. Since 2001, more than 250 local police officers, including a few K-9 dogs, have been honored for "their courage and willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty," said Larry Dunn, founder and chairman of the awards. "But K-9 Rocco is the first canine officer we will honor who gave his life in the line of duty."

"Our committee unanimously decided that Rocco's dedication and bravery in helping to save the lives of four fellow law enforcement officers, while attempting to subdue a dangerous armed suspect, met our criteria for heroism," Mr. Dunn said.

Last year, the Amen Corner presented a special award to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose foundation has contributed funds to purchase at least 72 dogs and to train 25 additional dogs and 54 handlers across the country.

The Ben Roethlisberger Foundation will purchase a new K-9 dog for Rocco's partner, Officer Phillip Lerza.

"Rocco can never be replaced, but we only hope to help with the healing process and to provide Officer Lerza with another loyal partner," Mr. Roethlisberger said in a news release.

The Roethlisberger Foundation was established in 2006 after a K-9 was shot and killed in Findlay, Ohio, the quarterback's hometown. Most of the money has been spent in Pittsburgh, Ohio and cities where the Steelers have played.

Star dog

Hey Sky! You won Best in Show at Westminster! What're you doing next?

Going to Broadway!

The wire fox terrier and her handler made a surprise appearance Feb. 13 at the Tony Award-winning show "Kinky Boots." Sky and handler Gabriel Rangel came onstage just before the curtain went up and were greeted with this line from actor Daniel Stewart Sherman, who plays Don the disgruntled factory worker:

"I don't care if you did win the Westminster Best in Show. Pick up after your dog! And congratulations!"

The line was custom written for Sky by Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the "Kinky Boots" book. Mr. Sherman delivered the line along with the "turn off your cell phone" announcement. Sky and Mr. Sherman shared a smooch then left the stage as the curtain went up.

At the end of the musical, Sky returned with the cast for a curtain call and got a standing ovation for her Broadway debut, according to a press release from O + M Co. Sky posed for pictures with cast members, including Pittsburgher Billy Porter who won the 2013 best actor Tony.

Grand Champion Afterall Painting The Sky, 5, won Best in Show Feb. 11 and made a round of appearances, including a steak lunch at Sardi's, a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, a visit to the Ronald McDonald House, and interviews at television stations and networks.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Contact Linda Wilson on her Facebook page, lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064. Got a pet health question? Email it to petpoints@post-gazette.com. It may be answered in an upcoming Pet Points column by veterinarians at the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic.

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