An outpouring of public sympathy for the loss of a German Shepherd police dog in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has convinced the dog’s handler to hold a public funeral for the canine hero on Friday.
Last Tuesday, 8-year-old Rocco was sent into a basement to subdue a suspect by his human partner, Officer Phil Lerza. Both the dog and officer sustained stab wounds.
The pair was allegedly injured by 21-year-old John Rush, who was wanted on numerous warrants. Media outlets are reporting that Rush had a history of mental illness and was homeless.
Rocco died on Thursday, after contracting pneumonia following surgery to repair the 3-inch deep stab wound. Officer Lerza was treated and later released for a stab wound to the shoulder.
Rocco was originally bred in the Czech Republic. Many dog trainers seek bomb sniffing and police dogs in Europe where they are specially bred for work. Rocco was sent to a training facility in Alabama where he was then selected for the Pittsburgh Police Department’s canine unit.
Rocco was paired with Lerza and quickly became a major part of his life. "You've got to take care of the dog 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it's like having another child in the family," Pam Rogers , the Alabama based trainer that imported Rocco, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
People close to the Lerza family, which included Officer Lerza’s wife, two children, and a canine sibling, said the Lerzas and Rocco were as close as any K-9 officer and his family could be.
On Thursday, Mrs. Lerza was preparing to pick her children up from school when police officers came to their home and told her that Rocco was in distress and probably would not make it.
Friday was a "really, really tough day," Officer Lerza’s aunt, Joy Gezo, told the Post-Gazette. "They're just trying to process it all, and the kids are having a tough time."
Initially, the Lerza family was going to keep Rocco’s services private, but after an outpouring of support and sympathy from the public, they decided to grieve with the people of Pittsburgh.
The service on Friday will be held at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh.
Editor’s Note: Photo of Rocco and Officer Lerza from the Post-Gazette’s Facebook page.