First it was one seizure, then a second and a third.
For two weeks Shane Stephenson watched as his friend’s decline took its toll.
Sultan, a 13-year-old German shepherd with dewy eyes, brown and black fur, and a muzzle peppered with gray, was ready for his final journey.
As Yarmouth’s first police dog, Sultan chased suspects and sniffed out drugs across southern Maine, working with any department that needed him.
On Friday, dozens of police officers from around the state gathered, solemn-faced, to return the favor, say thanks, and bid their loyal colleague one last goodbye.
“It’s been a struggle just to get him up on his feet,” said Stephenson, 29, a South Portland K-9 officer who took in Sultan as a pet. “There are some days when we’ve had to hold his head up so he can eat and drink.”
Among the crowd were several other K-9 handlers – of the more than 50 in the state – who came to support Stephenson and Sultan, who was retired from the Yarmouth department three years ago at the age of 10.
Justin Cooley, a K-9 handler with the Maine State Police, said he was reminded of both the indescribable bond between handlers and their partners, and the need for officers to support one another at times of loss.
“It goes much deeper than just working with them,” Cooley said. “These are dogs that we take home with us, they get to know our family. They’re with us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You go through a lot of things with them, and you just dread this day.”
So, in the back of a snowy parking lot off Interstate 295, Cooley and about two dozen police officers and firefighters gathered around the open hatch of Stephenson’s SUV, where Sultan, too weak to walk, lay outstretched.
Officers approached quietly, exchanging nods, and gave Sultan one last pet, one last scratch on his muzzle, one last rub behind the ears.
The loyal police dog raised his black nose to their hands, mustering for each of them a friendly sniff.
“He’s such a proud dog, always watching,” said Officer Mike Vogel, who was Sultan’s only handler. Yarmouth did not have a K-9 unit until Vogel proposed one in 2003. K-9 units are costly to train, but Vogel found donors to defray some of the cost. With the blessing of Yarmouth’s chief, Vogel took ownership of a 1-year-old pup delivered from France.
At the time, Vogel’s new four-legged partner understood only French, but with some training, he soon became an exemplary partner.
Sultan and Vogel answered more than 1,000 calls together, capturing dozens of suspects, untold amounts of cash and more than 100 pounds of narcotics.
Their run together ended in 2012, when Vogel took a job offer in Florida. He did not know if his new department would be able to take Sultan, so Vogel retired him. Stephenson, who was at that time a young officer in South Portland with aspirations of becoming a handler himself, was a natural caretaker, Vogel said.
Although Sultan was technically a pet, the police training never goes away. Stephenson said the veteran dog helped teach him about handling a working canine.
For 2½ years after retiring from police work, Sultan was healthy and happy, Stephenson said. Although he looked intimidating, Sultan quickly became a gentle, loving family member.
But about six months ago, the stress of a long career and life started to catch up with Sultan.
He showed signs of arthritis, and two weeks ago he suffered the first of three seizures from which he would never fully recover.
Sultan stopped eating, and was too weak to stand.
Stephenson knew it was time.
After their final farewells, the column of officers, with lights flashing, escorted Sultan the final mile to the Yarmouth Veterinary Center.
At the clinic, two rows of officers stood shoulder to shoulder, holding a prolonged salute.
Stephenson bent down, wrapped Sultan in his arms, and carried his friend into exam room three, his tour of duty over.
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: