Cpl. Jose Solis is one of two UND Police Department K9 handlers, but after his dog, K9 Officer Ben, died, he isn’t sure if he’ll get the chance to work with another.

The UND Police Department announced on its social media channel on Tuesday, Sept. 7, that Ben, a yellow labrador, had died after a bout with cancer. Ben was retired in February, shortly after he was diagnosed. Together with UND K9 Officer Bear, the two dogs worked on campus and off, alongside law enforcement agencies in the region searching out illegal drugs. With the death of Ben, Bear continues in that work.

But for Cpl. Solis, Ben’s best work was in bridging the gap between UND students, and police officers, which was part of the reason for beginning a K9 program on campus.

“They worked more in the sense of being an ambassador-type,” said Solis. “We use them a lot for that, and it worked wonderfully.”

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The K9 program came about in 2014, after the UND Police Department wanted to find a way to improve the relationship between students and police. Ben was UND’s first K9 officer. He came to the university from a facility in Iowa, and was paired up with Solis, who went there to train with Ben.

Officers, Solis said, were usually viewed only as the people who made arrests or handed out citations for underage drinking. The relationship with some fraternities was also not good, he said, but that all changed in a short while.

“Everything overnight changed once Ben came around,” Solis said. “The community relations and everything just just flipped, it was awesome. That was the biggest reason for us getting a dog.”

Funding was a challenge, but the department approached administrators for UND student housing, who brought it to members of the Association of Residence Halls, the student governing body for those who reside in UND housing. Students living on-campus pay a fee each semester to support programming for each hall.

In 2014, there was enough residual money to support bringing Ben to UND, said Troy Noeldner, UND’s director of housing and residence life. Students, he said, liked the idea of building a relationship with campus police officers, as well as the added security of having a dog on the grounds.

“I think part of the selling point was that the dog would be visible and would be out, and it would be something that students could interact with and see, and take some pride in,” Noeldner said.

Solis introduced Ben to students at residence halls, many of them living away from home for the first time. Some cried when meeting the dog, he said, remembering their dogs back home. He also gave presentations to elementary school children about police working with dogs, and introduced Ben to athletes participating in Special Olympics events in the region. The dog, Solis said, was a hit at those events.

“He was always the life of the party, he just, he loved being around people,” Solis said, emotion showing clearly in his voice.

Law enforcement work

UND K9 officers are not limited to staying on campus. The K9s at UND regularly assist other agencies. Solis said he got called out almost every shift, when the three K9s with the Grand Forks Police Department were busy, or off duty. The Grand Forks Sheriff’s Office has a dog as well, attached to the Grand Forks Narcotics Task Force, though the dog and its handler may not always be available for regular calls.

According to Lt. Derik Zimmel with the Grand Forks Police, agencies coordinate on using dogs when needed. Though they try to stay on the same side of the river, occasionally a K9 from East Grand Forks will help out if needed, and Grand Forks’ K9s will do the same.

One of Ben’s most recent assists happened shortly before being diagnosed with cancer. Solis was assisting the GFSO on a stop 20 miles west of town. There, he sniffed out a quantity of black tar heroin, parceled out in designer bags, along with methamphetamine and a sizable quantity of needles.

“Local agencies, when they knew that Ben was working, wanted to have Ben come out because they knew that he would be able to find whatever they were looking for, for narcotics,” Solis said. “That's how trusted he was in the area.”

Twice Ben was hurt on the job, after inhaling drugs while conducting searches. Solis stayed up through the night with his partner, to see if he would survive the exposures. The risk of coming into contact with drugs is one reason Solis didn’t have Ben trained to discover fentanyl -- one whiff could be fatal for a dog. Fentanyl is usually discovered alongside other drugs, Solis said. Let the dog find the narcotics and let the officer find the fentanyl.

The loss

The partners worked together for nearly eight years. At first, Solis thought Ben would be like a working dog, and the relationship they had would reflect the same. It turned out that wasn’t true. Over time, Ben grew to be part of Solis’ family. He lived at home with Solis, like with other K9 handlers and their dogs. There, his two young daughters could play with Ben like he was the family pet -- they painted his nails and dressed him up. When Ben was retired, Solis kept him at home. That closeness makes his loss significant for Solis.

“I cried all day yesterday,” he said. “The hurt that I had yesterday was just unbearable. It was pretty bad because he was not only part of the family, he was a part of me, in the sense that we were always together.”

On Tuesday, UND police officers comforted Solis at a local veterinary hospital, where they gave Ben a sendoff.

Solis said he isn’t sure he will get the chance to work with another K9 officer again, but he hopes so. He recognizes the value of a dog not only in locating narcotics, but in a K9 officer’s ability to be a bridge between people. Solis said working with dogs is his “passion,” but admits training and upkeep of an animal is expensive.

For now, Solis goes out on patrol, and in the vehicle he and Ben used to go out on calls.

“We were together 24/7, literally 24/7,” said Solis. “If he wasn't in a squad car with me he was at home with me, by my side always.”