GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — He could track down a suspect, find a missing child or sniff out an explosive package, but what Kent County Sheriff’s Department K-9 Axel really liked was having his photo taken.

“He had such a quirky personality. He loved to show off,” Deputy Krystal Stuart, Axel’s human partner, recalled.

Last week, Axel and Stuart were on the scene of a home invasion suspect, reportedly armed, who ran from a traffic stop into some woods near Sparta. Axel and Stuart went to work, tracking the suspect.

“He was a tracking machine. If there was somebody out there, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would find him,” Stuart said.

But minutes into the track, Axel had some sort of medical emergency and later died.

The sheriff’s office is still awaiting autopsy results to determine what lead to his death.

Axel is the second West Michigan K-9 injured in the line of duty in recent months. In late July, Van Buren County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Kuno was stabbed multiple times by a domestic assault suspect who was later killed by deputies after he charged at them with the knife. Kuno survived.

The K-9s face the same dangers as their human partners, but the job is about more than those dangers.

“It’s not just that we’re tracking bad guys or suspects. We track for missing children and vulnerable adults. We use these dogs on so many different levels,” said Stuart, who joined up with Axel and the K-9 unit two years ago.

Deputy and dog bumped heads often at first. Axel was always ready to work and hard to slow down. Then something clicked between Axel and Stuart. The two grew closer. For Stuart, the result of the effort went well beyond police training. It was personal.

“He had so many triggers. That’s what has built me in the last two years to be a better person, to slow myself down, to work on my patience,” Stuart said.

If you’re a dog lover, you get it.

The bond between human and pet can be very strong. It’s amplified when it comes to K-9 and cop. K-9s are more than four-legged assets; that’s why they’re called a human’s partner. They go home every night with their deputy and become part of the family. The entire Stuart family is feeling the loss, including her 7-year-old daughter.

“One of the first things she said was, ‘I knew he was always there for me when I was scared.’ And just him being in our house comforted her enough to know that everything was going to be OK,” Stuart said. “He was the type of dog that every handler wanted. But then, like, you’ve got to live with him! Good luck! But I embraced that. He was my buddy.”

The Kent County Sheriff’s Department K-9 Unit is self-funded. The dogs and their equipment are purchased through donations.

A public memorial service is being put together, but details have not yet been released.