VASSALBORO — A young girl with frozen feet, found shivering in the snow.

An Alzheimer’s sufferer found wandering in a field who, when rescued, wanted nothing more than to play ball.

It’s always been the innocent people who were helped, rather than the criminals caught, that made Kennebec County Sheriff’s Cpl. G.J. Neagle’s partnership with his dog most rewarding.

Now his 8-year-old canine companion, Gib, has retired for health reasons. On Friday, Gib was recognized as an asset during a canine graduation ceremony at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Gib’s tracking days may be over, but the good life is just beginning. The hip problem that forced his retirement will not be a problem when he wants to play with Neagle’s family or rest up from the day’s adventures.

“He’s going to live a happy family life that he’s earned,” Neagle promised. “He’ll be spoiled.”

Neagle’s new German shepherd, Dracco, was one of 17 dogs to graduate that will now go to work for multiple state, county and municipal police departments. All of the dogs, and their handlers, completed 12 weeks of training at the academy.

Dracco, at just 18 months old, already has a temperament that gives Neagle great hope for a good partnership, but he still hasn’t gotten used to leaving Gib behind when he heads out the door for work.

Gib and Neagle began working together in 2006. They responded to about 900 calls together, but the first live track they ever did together will always stand out, Neagle said. Gib, it turns out, wasted no time proving his trustworthiness.

The track began when the man fled another sheriff’s deputy who tried to arrest him on 10 felony warrants. Gib tracked the runner for about a mile before stopping at a dock on Cobbossee Lake. Neagle assumed the man had stolen a boat and fled across the lake. Neagle pulled at Gib to get the dog off the dock to continue the pursuit.

Gib wouldn’t budge.

The man “decided to make another attempt to run for it and began swimming out from under the dock towards the middle of the lake,” Neagle said. “As soon as Gib started barking at him, (the man) surrendered and swam to shore.”

A couple years later, in the fall of 2008, Gib tracked another man to a pond off Dam Road in Vassalboro. One of two men accused of stealing metal, the suspect was underwater when Neagle and Gib arrived at the shore — and waited. Moments later, the man burst out of the water and gave himself up for arrest.

“His need for air outweighed his desire to escape,” Neagle said.

But the best moments never came when Gib found drugs — Neagle says Gib found marijuana during every school search the dog did — or evidence, or even when helped take someone into custody.

What sticks with Neagle are the faces of relieved loved ones after Gib has helped bring them home.

One of those searches occurred in the late afternoon of December 2008. A 14-year-old girl with a mental disability ran away from a home in Readfield without shoes and wearing only light clothing. By the time Neagle and Gib arrived, so many people had been out searching for the girl that her track was badly contaminated. Gib spent 45 minutes trying to find the right track.

“I remember at one point it seemed as though Gib was just as frustrated as I was, because he stopped and gave me a look as if I was asking him if he was a miracle dog or something,” Neagle said. “I said, ‘You’ve got to find her. She can’t spend the night in the woods.’ Gib put his nose down and never stopped searching until he found her.”

The girl was curled up in a fetal position in the snow, shivering uncontrollably. Her feet frozen, Neagle took off his boots and jacket and put them on the girl as he and Sgt. Christopher Cowan escorted her from the woods.

“To me, that’s more important than criminal apprehension,” Neagle said.

There were others as well. Within the past couple of months, Gib found an 87-year-old woman with dementia who wandered away from her Benton home. Gib found her in the woods about 800 yards from her house.

“There was almost a two-hour delay on this track and nine people had been out looking for her before calling the sheriff’s office for help,” Neagle said.

A few years ago Gib found an 80-year-old Alzheimer’s patient who wandered from his Winslow home. He had been gone about four hours when Neagle and Gib were called to help. When Gib found the man about a mile-and-a-half from home, he was standing nearby in a field, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, covered in black flies and mosquitoes.

“He couldn’t care less about talking to me, but he wanted to play with Gib after I gave him his red ball for finding him,” Neagle said. “Gib played with him all the way out. The expression on the man’s wife’s face after we brought him home is unforgettable.”

Neagle will carry these memories into a new phase of his career with Dracco at his side. The pup has been with Neagle and his family for more than a year already and the corporal is impressed with the dog’s drive and social skills.

“He’s not overly aggressive,” Neagle said.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
[email protected]