You can take the dog out of the Alexandria Police Department K-9 unit, but you can’t take the K-9 unit out of the dog.
By James Cullum
Alexandria, VA – XigXag still wants to go to work. Every morning, the eight-year-old enviously watches his former partner, Alexandria Police Department Officer Carlos Rolon, Jr., at home putting on his uniform. Nowadays it truly is a dog’s life for XigXag, a twice-decorated six-year APD veteran who bucks stereotypes and seems anything but ferocious when he walks up, leans on your leg, and looks sweetly into your eyes asking for a pet.
“Come on, leaner!” Rolon playfully yelled to his old partner at the APD Canine Unit facility on Mill Road. “He still wants to come to work. He misses it, and every once in a while I let him get in the car with me and play in the training ground and he’s happy to be back out, and then I take him back home. Xag was one of our good demo dogs. He’d lean up on people and let them pet him. He has a good on-off switch to distinguish between work and play.”
Alexandria Police Chief Michael L. Brown said the Department will miss XigXag, who retired in May after serving seven years.
“XigXag was a valued member of our policing team at the Alexandria Police Department,” Brown said. “He served the City for a long time did his job very well! We will miss him in the field and hope he enjoys his retirement.”
Hundreds of canine officers have served the city over the course of the last 60 years, and the Mill Rd. facility includes a training course for the officers and their handlers. The dogs, generally German Shepherd and Belgian Malinois, are bred in Europe and cost upward of $9,000 apiece. They start work at about 1-year of age, go through a 14-week training program and live with their trainers, who adopt them after their retirement. All of the dogs are trained in-house per standards imposed by the United States Police Canine Association and must be certified every year.
Being a handler is also a 24/7 job, said Rolon, who is the president of the regional USPCA, covering Virginia, the District, Maryland, West Virginia, and Delaware.
“You might only be working four days a week, but your whole lifestyle changes and the new guys will tell me they didn’t realize how much work goes into it,” he said. “All the dogs come from parents that are working dogs with all of the characteristics that we’re looking for. We test these dogs before training to see if they’re willing to fight and stand their ground, and all of the dogs are alpha dogs, and that means that all of the handlers need strong personalities, because otherwise the dog will take over and won’t follow your direction.”
Recognized For Valor
Rolon, who has been an officer and trainer in the K-9 unit since 2004, has worked with two other dogs in his career. Like his fellow dogs in the unit, XigXag was cross trained in multiple disciplines and specialized in patrol, narcotics, searching buildings, tracking people, and apprehending criminals on the Special Operations Team. There are four narcotics dogs and four explosive detective dogs in the eight-dog unit and the oldest dogs are nine years old.
“The main thing we use these dogs for is for the biggest thing on their face – their noses. They’re not just for biting,” Rolon said. “The dog is a locating tool. The use of force option is a last resort and there’s a whole list of items that needs to be checked before we even consider that.”
XigXag also received two Valor Awards. In the summer of 2013, he located a man who was armed to the teeth in a ghillie suit camped in the woods in the backyard of his ex-wife’s Alexandria home. A Fairfax County Police helicopter found a heat signature, but it was XigXag who found the body of the suspect, who took his own life. The K-9 was also awarded for helping Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne and other APD officers chase down a homicide suspect in Old Town in 2017, in the parking lot of the Hilton Old Town.
“Dana [Lawhorne] yelled, ‘The dog’s coming!’ and the suspect just froze,” Rolon recalled. “I was one second away from calling Xag on her, but he gave up.”
Retirement Can Be Ruff Stuff
It isn’t easy for dogs like XigXag to stop working. He was forced to retire because of hereditary nerve issues with his back legs, which will eventually render them useless and he will have to use a wheelchair.
“These are work dogs and they want to come to work,” Rolon said. “I tell the handlers to treat them as much as a member of their families so they have a home life, because when they retire they get depressed and start having behavioral problems and sometimes shutting down and passing away because their purpose is gone. You’re going to have to share enough time with your old partner of it’ll create problems at home and you’l have a misbehaving child, because the dog is going to get their feelings hurt.”
One thing that XigXag won’t have to worry about in the future is his health care coverage. That’s paid for by the Alexandria Police Foundation.
“Xag’s very smart. Every handler gets the dog he deserves, and Xag taught me patience,” Rolon said. “My first dog, Ajax, was a nut. He was very hard-headed. Xag has this sense of calm, and I had to be patient, where if he messed up during an exercise I could reset him and he’d get it. He’s more of a thinker. He was very aware of my feelings, if I got frustrated, so I would have to calm down and show him what he needed to do and then he would get it done. He never let me down on the street. If something happened, he always performed.”