'He's your best friend that just died': Sheriff's office mourns sudden loss of K-9

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"The good life" is what awaited Saber next week.

The K-9 who'd served with the Wright County Sheriff's Office for nine years, was going to retire next Friday and head off to live with his original handler on a farm, Patrol Captain Dan Anselment told BringMeTheNews.

But Thursday night, Saber suddenly collapsed – a tumor, one that's often hard to detect in dogs, had burst. There was little doctors could do.

He died, and the department shared the news on Facebook "with heavy hearts." The post was quickly commented on by people offering kind words, with other police departments around the state offering their condolences as well.

"Rough. It's been hard to think about," Saber's handler and partner, Deputy Tom Cotten, told BringMeTheNews, saying the loss has been difficult despite the hugely supportive response.

"I've gotten just a crazy amount of support from co-workers and friends, family, other K-9 handlers and other law enforcement officers that have been contacting, offering their condolences," he said. "It's nice to see all that support, but at the same time ... he's your best friend that just died. He's a fantastic dog."

'We knew each other'

Cotten and Saber started at the sheriff's office about the same time – Saber in 2007, Cotten in January 2008.

"When I became a deputy, I came into this knowing it was something I really, really wanted to do," Cotten said of being a K-9 trainer, saying he actively got involved with then-Deputy Jeremy Wirkkula, Saber's initial partner.

"Since the beginning I was always there as the decoy, helping out with training, getting bit by Saber," Cotten said. They became partners three years ago, when Wirkkula became a sergeant.

"We knew each other," said Cotten.

So when Saber began having trouble Thursday night – not eating his food, not acting like himself – Cotten brought him to work to keep an eye on things. When they got to the office, Saber jumped out of the car and walked out into the snow, then turned around, began seeming wobbly, and fell over.

"It was terrible," Cotten said. "I knew something was obviously wrong then."

He took the K-9 to the emergency vet, who quickly diagnosed the issue as hemangiosarcoma – a tumor on Saber's spleen that burst, causing internal bleeding.

The Canine Cancer Awareness website says these types of tumors are a common form of cancer that usually (though not exclusively) affects older, larger dog breeds. Because the tumors frequently start with internal organs, there's usually little warning.

"He's my partner at work, he's my pet at home, he's my family pet," Cotten said. "So to have that happen was pretty unexpected. ... It's been pretty tough that way."

Saber a 'phenomenal' animal

Saber was certified in narcotics detection and as a patrol dog and had picked up a number of accolades, including a United States Police Canine Association "Case of the Year" nod in 2014, the department says.

Two times, he received Case of the Quarter for locating suspects in Carver County and Monticello, and had a first-place finish at a regional apprehension certification.

"Nine years in police work is a long time for a K-9" Anselment said, calling Saber a "phenomenal" animal that could go out in the community and help give demonstrations.

With Saber set for retirement, a new partner had already been lined up for Cotten, with K-9 officer Chase starting full-time training next month.

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