Editor’s note: This story was originally published July 5, 2014.
When he was a small boy, RJ Young scampered out of his family’s house in Garden Grove and into the backyard.
While his parents were inside, young RJ silently slipped into the deep end of the swimming pool and began sinking to the bottom.
The family’s dog, Heidi, went crazy, alerting RJ’s father, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy.
RJ’s father fished him out.
“I was 3 or 4,” Young recalls, “so I don’t remember it, but my dad said my face had turned blue.”
Oh, and about Heidi:
She was a German shepherd.
Young, an Anaheim Police officer, famously is linked to another German shepherd who also is credited with being a lifesaver: Bruno, his recently retired four-legged partner.
Now, as Young continues to be flooded with interview requests and public speaking invitations following a shooting incident earlier this year that made Bruno internationally famous, he’s getting to know yet another German shepherd:
On Friday, Bruno, who turns 8 on July 18, will serve as grand marshal in Anaheim’s annual Independence Day Parade. This fall, he’ll be the grand marshal of another parade in Yorba Linda.
On Saturday, June 28, Young met members of a local Boy Scouts troop outside an Anaheim Hills police substation.
“How’s Bruno doing?” one boy asked.
“Other than a funky haircut, you’d never know what he’s been through,” Young said.
Young then asked, “Would you like to see him?”
The boy’s face lit up.
Wearing a short-sleeve police uniform, Young opened the back door of his black-and-white Dodge Charger, and out jumped the German shepherd who made global headlines for his bravery and heroism.
Members of the Boy Scouts’ “Nuclear Panda Patrol Troop 818” service club, among thousands touched by Bruno’s story, had caravanned with their parents from Rancho Santa Margarita to hand Young $100 they raised selling lemonade.
The money is for Bruno’s health care costs in retirement.
“Wow, you must’ve sold a lot of lemonade,” Young said. “Thank you.”
The Boy Scouts fired off questions about Bruno.
“Will you get a new partner?” one Scout asked.
Yes, Young answered, explaining how he’s spent the past few weeks with a 17-month-old German shepherd from the Czech Republic.
“Does Bruno like the new dog?”
“They don’t really socialize yet,” Young said. “At home, that’s Bruno’s territory. He’s the Alpha there. It’ll take months. Right now, the new boy is kenneled. We’re going to train him right.”
Young is keeping the name of Bruno’s replacement secret for now, until he gets through training.
He said he embraces the opportunity to educate the public about the value of police dogs.
“It’s good for the police department,” he said. “It’s good for law enforcement. It’s good for K9 details. A lot of good has come out of all of this.”
An armed suspect hiding from police shot Bruno in the face in March. The bullet likely would’ve hit Young or another Anaheim officer.
The bullet entered Bruno’s mouth under his tongue, shattering his lower jaw. Then it ricocheted off his chest plate, missing his heart by an inch but piercing his left lung.
The bullet still is lodged there.
Young raced Bruno to the Yorba Regional Animal Hospital, where he spent the next seven weeks.
The world followed Bruno’s story on social media. He underwent multiple surgeries, wearing a metal plate on his jaw as he healed.
Dozens of reporters and members of the community showed up to the animal hospital and cheered when Bruno was released.
About 200 people, many wearing “K9 Bruno Hero” T-shirts, attended his retirement ceremony at an Anaheim City Council meeting in May.
A few days later, about 500 colleagues and friends gave Young and Bruno a standing ovation at the Grove in Anaheim when Bruno was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
In June, the Angels invited Bruno and Young to throw out the first pitch.
As Young approached the mound, he heard the public-service announcer tell the sold-out crowd how Bruno had tracked the hit-and-run driver responsible for the death of Angels outfielder Nick Adenhart.
“The place went crazy,” Young recalled. “The energy from the crowd was unbelievable.”
From as far back as he can remember, Young wanted to follow his father, uncle and grandfather into law enforcement.
“When my dad would come in that uniform, it was like Superman had just walked through the door,” he said.
Young’s uncle was a Seal Beach Police officer and his grandfather was a military policeman in the U.S. Army. “It’s in my blood,” he said.
He followed his father to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and thought he’d spend his career there.
But his dream was to work in the K9 unit.
Bruno was Young’s ninth German shepherd, but his first police dog. The first eight were pets.
“I thought I knew how to handle a dog,” he said. “I had no idea.”
He learned just how extreme a handler must be with discipline and praise. He demonstrated how he praises Bruno to the Boy Scouts.
“Good boy, good boy, that’s a good boy,” he said while petting Bruno’s belly. “You’d be surprised. Us K9 handlers, we can look like goofballs sometimes.”
The dogs are used primarily to find narcotics and bad guys, he explained.
“A lot of people think we use them to bite people,” he said. “But they are really a locating tool.”
The reason they bite, Young told the boys: so a suspect won’t hurt the dog, hurt a human officer or run away.
“When we find a bad guy, I usually say, ‘Hey Bad Guy, it’s the Anaheim Police Department K9 detail and he’s gonna bite you,’” Young said. “If you give up, nothing will happen.”
Bruno is usually going crazy barking, which sounds scary.
“Most of the time, the bad guys say, ‘OK, I give up,’” Young said. “Of course, sometimes people make really, really, really bad decisions.”
Young said he has dozens of great memories working with Bruno. But it’s not chasing bad guys or finding large stashes of drugs that he’ll miss most.
It’s the long talks in the car.
Or the times when Young came back to his patrol car and discovered he’d left some food on the seat.
He said Bruno could read him better than anybody. Whenever he ran a license plate and it came back that the driver had a warrant, “Bruno somehow knew,” Young said. “It’s not like he could read the computer screen.”
A few years ago, at a regional K9 event at Glover Stadium, then K9 Sgt. Steve Pena entertained the crowd with a presidential debate. Bruno played the role of “Bark” Obama. Guenther, another Anaheim K9 officer, was “Mutt” Romney. Both of them wore a T-shirt with a tie on it.
Bruno has aged gracefully and probably had at least another year of service in him, Young said.
“He only has a little bit of gray on his goatee and muzzle,” Young said. “He still has a lot of puppy in him.”
Now, when Young grabs the keys to his patrol car to go to work, he can tell that Bruno is sad.
“He sees me leave with the new dog,” Young said, “and it’s tough.”
Henry Villasenor, father of one of the Rancho Santa Margarita Boy Scouts, called the hour he and his son spent with Young and Bruno an “experience we will treasure forever.”
He shook Young’s hand.
“Thank you for your bravery and valor,” he said. “And thank you for keeping us safe.”
The scrapbook moments keep coming, Young said.
“These kids went out and sold lemonade,” he said. “That’s awesome.”
“But I’d give all this up for the shooting not to have happened.”