Shield, K-9 unit, perseveres a year after Lehner tragedy

German shepherd lost partner in diving accident last year

Mike Baggerman
October 13, 2018 - 3:00 am

Matthew Richards walking with Shield. The dog, 5, was the former partner of Craig Lehner, who died during a training mission in the Niagara River on October 13, 2017. October 12, 2018 (WBEN Photo/Mike Baggerman)

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WBEN) – It’s been one year since the Buffalo Police Department’s K-9 Unit lost one of its youngest members, Craig Lehner.

Lehner, 34, tragically died during a training mission with Buffalo Police’s Underwater Rescue Team on October 13, 2017.

Lehner’s death was shocking and emotional for not just the men and women on the police force, but also Lehner’s K-9 partner, a German shepherd named Shield.

After going missing that fateful Friday afternoon, Shield, now five, exhibited clear signs of stress. That stress was managed by fellow members of the Buffalo Police Department, who actively coordinated efforts to keep Shield occupied in order to lessen the dog’s tension.

Matthew Richards, a ten-year veteran of the Buffalo Police, became Shield’s handler in March.

“He’s a great dog,” Richards said. “Whenever we’re at home, he’s always around me. He’s very playful. He enjoys the kids when they’re out with him.”

Richards and Shield are with each other at all times at the day, including when the police officer is home. At home, Shield acts like any other dog at home.

But once it’s time to show up for work, Shield is all business. Richards noted that Shield’s demeanor is different, from his walk to his bark.

Specializing in drug search and seizures, Shield keeps busy while in the office with Richards, including a recent drug tracking in early October.

“Lots of tracks, building searches, all kinds of stuff like that he does real well in,” Richards added. “His specialty is drug searches and patrol work. “

Shield is full of energy and is often seen with a kong in his mouth with a short rope at its end. Richards said that Shield is rewarded with the kong any time he finds narcotics. The dog ends up enjoying the kong so much, Richards has to wrestle the kong from the dog.

Becoming Shield’s handler in March was a pressuring situation for Richards. Not only because of the relationship the two needed to build, but also because of the circumstances regarding Shield’s former partner. Richards said his partnership with Shield was unexpected because he was the last to get a dog. However, he feels honored to be Shield’s partner.

“I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know how things would go,” Richards said. “He makes things easy. He takes the pressure away.”

Still, Buffalo Police’s K-9 unit, mourns Lehner’s untimely death. The youngest of the seven dogs in the unit was named after Lehner. Coincidentally, Shield was named after the late Buffalo Police Officer James Shield, who died in a car accident on October 30, 2002 while chasing a robbery suspect in Buffalo.

Lehner was the one who named Shield after the fallen officer.

Buffalo Police Lieutenant and K-9 Commander Salvatore Losi said that naming the dogs after officers is a trend he’d like to see going in the future.

“I think at the time of Craig’s death, I expressed some sorrow over the fact that Craig represented the future of our unit,” Losi said. “It was upsetting to lose the future. Within the last year, we’ve got three new members of the K-9 unit. We feel good going forward with new members. Coincidentally, they all graduated with Craig. There’s a lot of similarities between the new handlers and Craig. I think he would be happy to see who is carrying on his legacy for us.”

Buffalo Police’s K-9 Training Facility is located on Louisiana Street in South Buffalo. In May, there were plans to name it after Lehner. Officially, that hasn’t occurred yet and Losi said upgrades are still need, though there will be an official grand opening in the future. Internally, the department calls the field the Lieutenant Lehner Training Field.

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