ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — He became one of the Round Rock Police Department’s most reliable K-9s, but before Harley donned the badge a few years ago, his future was uncertain.
Harley, now roughly 6 years old, started his life as a stray, picked up by a passerby and brought to the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter (WCRAS) in 2014. That’s where RRPD Officer Noah Moncivais found him.
Harley retired from the force earlier this month after years of tracking down drugs and evidence. In 2015, he rode a helicopter over Wimberley to help search for missing people during the Memorial Day flood.
“He’s been with me during some of my worst moments as a police officer,” Moncivais told KXAN, “and so he’s been also that unofficial therapy dog, too.”
The patrol officer had just gotten a new position on the K-9 team and needed a partner. Most departments get their dogs from special breeders, but RRPD decided to go a different route. They showed up at the shelter to test out a few canines.
“He needed a job to do,” said Misty Valenta, community programs coordinator at WCRAS. Named Cosmo in the shelter, the friendly pup had a never-ending drive to sniff out tennis balls and play fetch.
At the time, though, the shelter was still using breed labels for its animals, and due to his frame and head shape, Cosmo was tagged a pit bull mix. Stereotypes abound in the adoption world, and that label, combined with his high energy, kept potential adopters away.
One family took him home shortly after he came in, Valenta said, but brought him right back. He would stay there for nearly nine months until the police gave him a second chance.
“We took the chance” despite not knowing his background, Moncivais said, “and it was the best decision this department made and I made.”
Across the country now, voters have a decision of their own to make. Harley is up for a Hero Dog Award from the group American Humane. He’s up against 10 other law enforcement and arson dogs from around the U.S. in his category, and he stands to win a red-carpet reception in Hollywood for the winners in all seven categories. Kaxan — the little dog found running behind the KXAN studio in 2012 — is among those vying for the top spot in the therapy dog category. Voting runs through May 2.
Most of Harley’s competitors come from special breeders around the world, the preferred option for most law enforcement agencies due to the predictability they offer.
Valenta doesn’t remember an agency adopting a K-9 from WCRAS before Harley, and RRPD has tripled down on the practice since: two other department dogs, a third of the current K-9 force, came from the shelter.
The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office put its first adopted K-9, Bolo, into the field for the first time earlier this year. The office has eight other K-9s on the force.
Neither Travis nor Hays counties have any adopted dogs in the sheriff’s offices, and an Austin Police Department spokesperson told KXAN she didn’t believe they did, either.
Valenta hopes Harley’s success serves as an example of what shelter dogs can offer if given the chance.
“To have him out there with his officer, going and meeting people and having positive experiences, these are the animals as they truly are,” she said. “From the kenneled Cosmo to the loved Harley is just a huge transformation, and it’s a transformation that any shelter dog can make.”
The low-key retirement life is a tough adjustment for Harley; he still waits by the patrol car in the morning, ready to go to work protecting the people of Round Rock, Moncivais said.
“It’s hard for him to be a normal dog because he came from a shelter, he was found as a stray, and then he became a police dog,” Harley’s former partner said. “So he doesn’t really know what it’s like to be a normal backyard dog.”
It’s a slow process to move into civilian life, but he’s getting there with the help of his three canine roommates and his new partner — Moncivais’ 2-year-old son.
The Round Rock officer misses having Harley in his cruiser every day, but he hopes his story shows people the softer side of shelter dogs they might normally overlook.
“These dogs are not just the stereotype,” he said. “They have a purpose.”