Man’s best friend, officer’s best partner

Toby, Of cer Greg Kirby’s K-9 partner, celebrated his 11th birthday on Feb. 27, which is the day the two connected.

Weekdays at around 3 p.m., rain or shine, you can find Officer Greg Kirby and his K-9 partner, Toby, delivering children to their parents in the carpool line. Toby lays relaxed, belly in the grass, while three kids pet him goodbye. It seems like hundreds of high-pitched, “Bye Toby!”s echo under the awning of Kilby Laboratory School.

Kirby, the Florence native and graduate of Coffee High School, had his own children at Kilby not too long ago. It seems his own children, and Toby too, all grew up on campus, one made safer by himself and his formerly mentioned K-9 partner.

In 2010, the chief of police identified a safety need for the university: should there be a need, the nearest K-9 bomb sniffer worked two hours away. At the time, Auburn University trained explosive detection dogs for free during a ten week program.

“[The previous police chief] got me a spot,” Kirby said. “I volunteered for it since I had some knowledge around K-9 due to my Airforce experience.”

In a different time-line, the unofficial dog of campus looks different. First, the program paired Officer Kirby with yellow lab named Benny.

“[Benny] did some good work, but he would also look for people and food,” Kirby said. “He wanted to play more than he wanted to work.”

Components involved in K-9 training include the dog’s demeanor, habits and overall health. Can they withstand loud noises, like crowd cheer? Are they easily distracted by food or people?

Benny, like many of our own personal pets, fell vulnerable to the last two items on this list.

“Being in that environment, seeing [K-9] work, is a big difference than having a dog on a leash,” Kirby said. “It was an eye-opening experience to see what all is involved.”

After Benny, Kirby and Toby connected on Feb. 27, better known as Toby’s birthday. Trainers tested Toby’s demeanor as a puppy, in a prison, and he spent his first year of life playing with inmates. In this environment, evaluators saw he met the requirements to continue on into official training.

“Dogs are obedient and loyal,” Kirby said. “They want to please us. If that’s not there in a dog, they won’t last in the program.”

In March, Toby graduated K-9 school, moved to his new home in Florence, Ala., then began working on campus and in the area.

“We’re here for the campus in case we need him for bomb sniffing, but we also do the community,” Kirby said. “I’ve worked with Florence PD on several call outs. We’ve responded as far south as Hamilton, Lawrenceburg, Savannah.”

Examples of places Toby sniffs include Braly Stadium before home football games, Flowers Hall before graduations, Shoals Fest held at McFarland Park this past fall and a Mike Huckabee rally in Florence five years ago.

For the past eight years, Kirby and Toby also volunteer to support the University of Alabama on football game days.

“It’s all about keeping people safe,” Kirby said. “It’s not about the money. Yes, money is nice, recognition sometimes is nice, but inside of me, overall, is my drive to keep people safe.”

In addition to his job bomb sniffing, Kirby and Toby also help with arrival and dismissal at Kilby along with Principal Dr. Eric Kirkman.

“One of the first things I did when I came to Kilby was I wanted to make a point to learn every kid’s name,” Kirkman said. “I wanted to create the best positive rapport that I could and so to do that I thought it would be important for me to meet them outside when they get out of the cars. Well, I didn’t realize that Officer Kirby and Toby also would greet kids at the door. Seeing me out there, we just started talking and getting to know each other.”

The two men grew to bond over their families. At the time, both Kirby and Kirkman’s sons attended Kilby, and, like Kirby, Kirkman’s father served in the Airforce. Of course, they also talked about Toby.

“Just getting to know the kids in the mornings by getting them out in the car line and then just seeing how they interact with Toby… I thought, ‘that’s very special,” Kirkman said. “That’s very unique. I don’t know of any other schools that have that.”

Whenever a new school year rolls around, Toby serves as a huge comfort animal for younger and/or new students.

“You can tell they couldn’t wait to get out and pet Toby,” Kirkman said. “In a lot of instances, they would kind of pass me by and go straight to Toby, which was fine because again there was no anxiety, or the anxiety was greatly reduced.”

Besides increasing safety during arrival and dismissal, Officer Kirby’s police presence humanizes the role of law enforcement officers to younger students. With their soft spot for Kilby, they return on Tuesdays to help first graders with their reading.

“They asked me, and I jumped on it,” Officer Kirby said. “I said, ‘of course.’”

Nationally, educators encourage students to read out loud to dogs in order to improve their attitude and performance in reading.

“It’s amazing to see some of the ones that struggle reading, you don’t really see that when they’re reading to the dogs,” Kirkman said. “That’s really encouraging to see, Toby being that motivation for them to step up and read. And not just stepping up and reading but reading out loud, which is a difference. “

Kirby and Toby are no strangers to successes at Kilby. This past fall, they held the first “Friends of Toby” to raise supplies for the Florence-Lauderdale Animal Shelter.

“We do some community projects that involve Toby because he’s such a loving, loved dog,” Kirby said. “I thought, what better way to give back to the community than by using Toby’s face to help feed his friends.”

Kirkman and the Kilby community promoted the event and posted the signs all over their building.

“We have morning meetings in the gym every morning and so we would often remind the kids ‘hey, don’t forget to bring your dog food, don’t forget to bring things for Toby,’” Kirkman said. “Needless to say, they were very responsive. We did a good job in supporting that effort.”

UNA PD successfully doubled their goal and raised over 2,000 pounds of dog and cat food, cat litter, bedding, cleaning supplies and toys to donate to the shelter.

“I think [Officer Kirby and Toby’s presence at Kilby] extremely important,” Kirkman said. “We are at the point now where if Officer Kirby is out for whatever reason, the kids wanna know where he’s at. He’s missed … It’s really sweet to know that they, I guess, have adjusted to them being a part of their day.”

Whenever holidays, birthdays, or teacher appreciation week arrives, Kilby celebrates their humble heroes.

“Sometimes you wonder if what you’re doing is making an impact,” Kirby said. “It makes me feel like part of [the Kilby] family and more. And Toby gets treats too.”

At the end of the day, Kirby and Toby return home to their own family.

“He’s part of my family,” Kirby said. “He stays in the house. He’s very, I don’t wanna say clingy, but he has to be close to me so wherever I am in the house he’s nearby. He has a dog bed behind my bed. He’s a big part of the family.”

Relaxing in bed is an important step for Toby. In February, he turned 11.

“He has aches and pains like older people get with age,” Kirby said. “He has some arthritis in his hips. He did have surgery on his left knee as a puppy so sometimes on those cold days or boring days, for lack of better words, it does affect him a little bit.”

Dr. Nikki Snipes and Shoals Animal Hospital monitor Toby’s health closely all for free. Other community sponsors help offset the cost of a K-9 program.

“Pet Depot has been so loyal,” Kirby said. “They have made sure Toby has been fed for the last eight years. That’s all donation.”

Toby enjoys Smart Choice, though Kirby claims he’s not picky about what flavor. Milk bones, however, are his favorite treat.

“No people food,” Kirby says. “Unless he sneaks it behind my back.”

Pampered Pets in Killen donates their grooming services to keep Toby looking spiffy.

“[They] give Toby baths and make him smell good,” Kirby said. “Which, he needs one now.”

These sponsors lessen the costs of a K-9 program. To maintain a single dog can run anywhere between four-thousand and six-thousand dollars a year.

“Any time you get donations or love from the community you can’t thank them enough,” Kirby said.

The department doesn’t set an age for retirement; it all depends on Toby’s health.

“Rest assured that as time does come for retirement, we’re gonna have a big, big party,” Kirby said. “I’ve been told that we will bring another dog to this campus also.”

When asked to share his feelings about working with “his best friend,” like Toby on the floor beside him, Kirby is speechless.

“It’s been an honor,” Kirby said. “The highlight of my career… what words can I use to describe that feeling?”