After a short battle with bone cancer, retired Billings police dog Igor has died.
His hander, former police officer Steve Feuerstein, said Igor died a peaceful death at their home on Dec. 28, where Igor continued to live after his retirement in 2005.
“A piece of me has gone away,” Feuerstein said. “He was every bit of a man’s best friend.”
The 16-year-old Belgian Malinois joined the Billings police force in 1998 and retired about seven years later after experiencing health problems.
During his career with the police force as a narcotics and criminal apprehension canine, Igor played a central role in seizing about $4.5 million in drugs and assets and claimed seven criminal apprehensions.
Among his most celebrated cases, Igor sniffed out 3 ½ pounds of cocaine and a pound of methamphetamine hidden in two purple duffel bags stashed in the overhead compartment of a Greyhound bus. He jumped across the bus seats’ head rests to locate the drugs.
In another instance, Igor sniffed two 50-pound bags of marijuana, which also were being transported by bus.
“The dog had a 95 percent accurate finding rate,” Feuerstein said. “There was no mistaking an odor with him.”
Feuerstein said he has many fond memories of working with Igor, including Igor’s first criminal apprehension just months after joining the force, in which he was awarded a medal of honor.
“Igor and I worked hard, and we were a great team,” Feuerstein said. “I depended on Igor, and he depended on me.”
The team averaged one drug arrest per day, Feuerstein said.
In 2003, Igor was awarded the “Special Hero,” among 17 other people awarded at the Sixth Annual Heroes Breakfast that was sponsored in part by the American Red Cross. The award highlighted Igor's years of hard work to make the community a safer place. He was the first and only police dog ever awarded with the title, Feuerstein said.
The Belgian Malinois, bred in Holland and trained in Ohio for police work, cost the city about $12,000.
“I remember the day I picked him up like it was yesterday,” Feuerstein said. “People always say that a dog will take on its handler’s personality. But I think we took on each other’s personalities over time.”
Igor was well-known in the community as a regular visitor to school, nursing homes and even the St. Vincent Healthcare pediatrics ward.
“I think he touched many more people than I even know,” Feuerstein said. “His social skills were unbelievable.”
Igor had a few health problems, Feuerstein said, mostly in his joints as he aged.
“I always told the old man that we were going to grow old together,” Feuerstein said of Igor. “And we did. When I started going gray, so did he.”
The one health problem Igor couldn’t overcome, however, was cancer.
When he was diagnosed in October, there wasn’t much the family could do. At that point, Feuerstein said, the dog was on borrowed time.
“It was just too aggressive,” he said. “But he was still playing with our other dogs at the old age of 16, until the cancer really set in.”
During Igor’s last days, he was surrounded by the Feuerstein family. They celebrated his birthday on Dec. 16 as well as the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with him. The day after Christmas, he started to slip.
“He gave me a look like he was just done,” Feuerstein said, holding back tears. “I spent every minute that I could with him before he was gone.”
During the final days, Feuerstein said Igor had the run of the house and was spoiled with ground deer meat and staying indoors and out of the cold all day. And, Feuerstein said, there was a lot of love.
“It’ll take me years before I can talk about Igor and not cry,” Feuerstein said. “I know I sound like a big sissy, but that’s just the way it is."