GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — People across West Michigan will honor a Kent County police dog who died in the line of duty last year. 

The nonprofit K9s United is hosting the 3rd annual Virtual Fallen K9 Memorial Run Thursday.

The national event aims to provide support for K-9 units in need all over the country with the race honoring the memory of 21 K-9s lost in the line of duty last year. 

In Kent County, the sheriff’s office is asking people to run to honor the sacrifice made by K-9 Axel, who joined the department in 2019. He was an explosive detection dog in the community services unit with his handler Deputy Krystal Stuart.

On Aug. 28, 2021, the two were tracking a home invasion suspect when Axel suffered from a heart attack. He was brought to an animal hospital, where he passed away. 

“Our bond over the last 2.5 years that I had him, it was… amazing. I never would have anticipated having a bond like that with a dog or a working dog. I have had personal dogs my whole life. The bond that him and I had because we were together all the time, it grew significantly. He taught me so much about myself, patience, fairness and all this stuff. When he passed away, it was extremely hard because that is who I spent the most time with,” Stuart said. 

Stuart went started working with her new K-9 Kai in July and credits Axel for making her a better handler. 

“As soon as I got [Kai] and started training him, it was like a hole had been filled. I still find myself talking about Axel because he made me the handler that I am now. He prepared me to be a better handler for Kai and just a better person in general.”

She added the support from the community has been more than she ever could have anticipated. 

“I still am receiving cards and memorabilia from all over the country, just as of like last week,” she said. “Now, I’m slowly processing it. I think another thing is just being proud. My kids are so proud of Axel. They never got to really hang out with him because he was 100% work dog and so he was not the cuddly, like I can hang out with you dog, but they were so proud of him,” Stuart said.

There is a lot that goes into maintaining a K-9 unit. Due to budgetary constraints, many law enforcement agencies do not have the funding to provide the resources needed. 

“When you think about a K-9 unit, we have 10 on our current team. The food, the treats, the toys, the regular stuff like that. I mean, that gets expensive, but then you have prevention. So, flea and tick and heartworm, you add that, you times that by every dog and then you have just your normal medical bills. So, these are working dogs. Sometimes they can get cuts or bumps and bruises that you have to get taken care of. Teeth can become an issue, so then you have to get treatment for that and then just regular visits, which are expensive,” Stuart explained.

K9s United believes it is not only vital that police dogs receive proper training, equipment and care to do the best possible job, but they deserve it. 

“With our vision to support, honor, strengthen, and provide, K9s United will continue until every law enforcement K-9 in need is served,” the nonprofit wrote. 

While registration for the run has closed, those interested in supporting K9s United can visit its website