Police pup on job despite cancer
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He wagged his tail, returned to his master when called and barked on command.

But JJ spent most of his time in front of the cameras doing what he is best known for - sniffing around. With snout to the ground, the chestnut-colored bloodhound walked around the parking lot of the Utah Children's Museum, showing journalists who is the nosiest of them all. It indicated JJ is still the dog he was before he began cancer treatments six weeks ago on trips to New York.

As of noon Friday, the 9-year-old Salt Lake City police dog has been credited with tracking down 241 suspects and lost people - everyone from shooting suspects to missing children. The police department says he's the most prodigious K-9 in its history and has persuaded other police agencies to buy bloodhounds.

Previously, most departments used German shepherds for tracking.

The media began tracking JJ earlier this month when the department announced he had cancer in his throat. His handler and owner, officer Mike Serio, has been taking JJ to New York City for experimental radiation treatment.

Despite the diversion of chasing squirrels in Central Park, JJ has been stressed by the trips to the Big Apple, said Serio.

Doctors surgically removed most of JJ's cancer. A long, gray streak down the right side of his face and neck show where his three radiation treatments have been directed. JJ has two remaining.

When the radiation is finished, vaccines will be given in an attempt to keep away the remaining cancer. Veterinarians are optimistic JJ will survive, Serio said.

JetBlue Airways has donated the flights, Serio said, but the remaining travel and treatment expenses will total about $15,000. Serio said he and his wife as well as donors are paying some of that cost and other money is being paid from the police department budget.

Serio said he doesn't know how much the department is paying and thus far it has "a running tab." A trained K-9 costs more than $10,000, he said.

"I'm doing this mainly for him," Serio said. "It's just a bonus that if he gets healthy he'll continue [working]."

Serio's attachment for JJ goes beyond that of a typical handler and K-9. Serio was a patrol officer when he bought JJ as a pet at 8 weeks old. Serio noticed JJ liked to track people around his house. When the dog was 1, Serio began playing hide-and-seek with him. Eventually, he proposed to the department that JJ become a police dog.

Serio still owns JJ and the department reimburses him for the dog's use and expenses. At night, JJ sleeps on or at the foot of Serio and his wife's bed.

"He's definitely a big part of our family," Serio said.

Serio said he can't tell the cancer and treatment has diminished JJ's performance. One of his most-recent apprehensions came Feb. 16 when a hit-and-run suspect fled on foot near 200 North and Redwood Road.

"It's not like humans where we get to a certain age and we want to kick back," said Sgt. Chris Ward, who oversees the K-9 division. "This is his whole life. I wouldn't be surprised if his last breath is [sniffing] a track."

Serio acknowledged JJ won't be around to track suspects forever. He's looking for another puppy to purchase.

"We're going to get him and prepare for the future," Serio said, "but I really don't like to think about that."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com