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Settling Albania’s ‘hero’ police dogs into retirement

TIRANA (AFP) – After years of sniffing out illicit cash in Albanian airports, German shepherd Konti has a lot to look forward to in retirement. He will enjoy it by the side of his partner in fighting crime, his handler Ilir Balla.

The 10-year-old canine is lucky.

Unable to part ways with the dog, Balla officially adopted him following his retirement from the police force, vowing to take care of it “until the last days of his life”.

“The relationship with the animal is special for everyone but our attachment is different,” Balla told AFP, speaking at the Institute of Police Dog Training in the capital Tirana.

“We are a team and the bond between us is very strong, very special.”

The institute has over 80 dogs working with police, including German shepherds and Malinois.

Different dogs have different skills, from detecting drugs, weapons or banknotes.

Among the best-known is Brandi, a German shepherd who rose to prominence during the search-and-rescue efforts following an earthquake in Albania that killed around 50 people in late 2019.

Konti – who was pulled from the force due to his failing vision – still has an “exceptional nose”, said Balla. During the course of his career, he helped detect large volumes of undeclared cash at Tirana airport.

ABOVE & BELOW: Police dogs play in the breeding area at the Institute of Police Dogs Training in Tirana; and a dog trainer leads a police dog during their daily training. PHOTOS: AFP

Konti is one of nearly 20 dogs that have recently retired from a career with the Albanian police due to advancing age or performance issues.

Once retired, the dogs are officially open to adoption to the public, with prices ranging from EUR60 to EUR170 or sometimes even higher.

The meticulously trained dogs offer obvious advantages to prospective owners.

Saimir Hasmataj, looking for a retired police dog for his family, eventually adopted Osra. He chose Osra, who is already nine years old, because she had “quite the story” compared to the average dog, he said, having saved lives during the course of her duties.

But for many of the police officers who worked so closely with them over the years, leaving behind their trusted companions when they are retired is difficult.

Narcotics officer Dritan Zela does not have the option of taking home his partner Diksi because he does not have the space. But he will remember the 11-year-old German shepherd as an “excellent” partner who saved his life on multiple occasions.

One time, he recalled, Diksi threw himself on top of him when they came under fire.

“Diksi had a real instinct to protect me, which pushed him to face the worst,” he said, visibly moved at the memory.

But with age, his capacity to sniff out drugs waned, so he could not continue.

“I regret his departure, we have been together for years, we are like a family,” said the 51-year-old officer.

“I will miss him but wherever he is, I will go to visit him. They are all our heroes.”