DELAND — Dementia wiped out Robert Gailey’s memory and took his life on Easter Sunday.
There were, though, moments of clarity in the 82-year-old’s final days. They surfaced during visits from K-9 police officers from agencies across the area. People came from all over to honor Gailey and say farewell before he died.
Gailey, known to many as “Big Bob,” was a longtime force in police dog training, police dog handler training, and a pioneer in Central Florida’s dog community.
Among the visitors were J.R. Johnson, a retired Volusia County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Deputy, and Deputy Michael Webb, K-9 handler in charge of the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office police dog unit.
“It seemed like when we walked in, that something sparked in him, maybe because we had something to do with dogs, something he could relate to really quick,” Johnson said in a recent interview, fighting back his emotions.
“He whispered my name. Yeah, he whispered my name — and I damn near lost it.”
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Robert Gailey was devoted to dogs
Dogs were Gailey’s life. The walls of photos — hundreds of pictures — in his DeLand home tell the stories of Gailey working and training dogs of all breeds, some of which Johnson described as dogs that looked like “they would eat you up.”
Gailey was a longtime police dog trainer, an award-winning dog show competitor, and a pioneer German shepherd dog importer in Central Florida.
His love for dogs was lifelong — when he helped at a veterinary clinic in Orlando or at age 12, when he was showing in American Kennel Club competitions, according to Central Florida media reports.
His work with police dogs started in 1959 when he was a military police officer in the U.S. Army. Gailey was a K-9 handler.
After leaving the Army, he became a reserve deputy with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. In 1964, Gailey started K-9 of Orlando, a police dog training facility, which he later moved to Astatula in Lake County, said Robert Ramos, Orange County Master Deputy and K-9 handler, who retired three months ago.
Ramos, Johnson, and Webb were students of Gailey’s, who trained, graduated and became certified K-9 handlers at his school. They have also advanced to being K-9 trainers in their respective agencies. Johnson still works with dogs, providing security to cruise ships.
Ramos met Gailey in 1989. Johnson met the man he called the “guru” of police-dog training in 1983 and Webb met Gailey in 1998.
Gailey’s K-9 training impact was widespread
For at least 55 years, as a trainer, Gailey prepared thousands of officers and deputies as K-9 handlers all over the state, Webb said.
Records that Gailey kept of his work show that he trained and worked with dogs from police agencies all over Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and West Virginia. He also worked with K-9 units in Washington, D.C.
During those years, Gailey also launched K-9 units at Disney World in 1972 and shortly after did the same at Seaworld, his friends and family said.
“He was big in bringing in and introducing dogs from outside of the country. He started our import program here (Volusia County Sheriff’s Office),” Webb said.
Webb said that just before Gailey was diagnosed with dementia, he asked him about the number of K-9 units he had trained all over Florida.
Webb said he and Gailey used to talk about the impact Gailey has had on K-9 policing. Gailey estimated he had trained thousands of police dogs, Webb said.
In addition to being the first importer of German shepherds to the Central Florida area, Gailey also improved training techniques and added his personal touch to training police dogs, which are still taught in multiple K-9 programs at agencies in Florida, his former students, now trainers, said.
“At the time, the dog program had dogs that were donated, bought from local vendors and you really took some chances on what these dogs could do, even if they were trained,” Johnson said. ”Some of them worked out, some of them didn’t. It was just a miss and hit deal.”
Students had to learn German under Gailey
Johnson recalled how under Gailey’s teachings, the first thing he had to do was speak German, because the dogs at Gailey’s kennel already knew German commands.
Perhaps Gailey’s biggest contribution in K-9 training was that he changed compulsion training (making the dog do what the handler wanted) to happy training, where Gailey got the dog to do something because he wants to do it, Webb said.
“Bob taught food motivation, toy motivation,” Webb said. “So he got the dogs to do things because they wanted to do them. They wanted to work for you because they were getting something in return.”
Every student who went through Gailey’s K-9 classes became familiar with his phrase “Repetition by association, forms a pattern, creates a habit, produces the behavior,” Webb said.
“That was his phrase, and you know, it is exactly how it works with K-9s,” Webb said.
“Bob (Gailey) was a wealth of knowledge,” Ramos said, adding he always called on Gailey when he had problems with his K-9.
Ramos recalled how he had problems getting his K-9 to heel closer to him and called Gailey for help. With a hot dog, Gailey corrected the dog’s behavior in less than 10 minutes, Ramos said.
“That man has been training and working with dogs longer than I am alive,” Ramos said.
Gailey, described as a “machine” when it came to his work ethic, left the business of police-dog training in 2008 but still worked as a K-9 consultant.
Even as he aged, Gailey kept working with dogs
Even in his late 70s, Gailey was still training pets for people, Webb and Johnson said.
He would also show up at the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office K-9 training compound as late as last year and watched K-9 handlers and their dogs in training, Webb said.
Gailey had a passion and love for dogs and although he made a living by training K-9s, he always had a soft spot for law enforcement agencies, said his wife, Lisa, who also learned to train dogs with Gailey as her mentor.
“Bob was committed. And Bob went out of his way for a department,” Lisa Gailey said. “If someone called and their department was short on funds, Bob would put the person and the dog through the class and not charge them anything, and do the certification for them.”
Lisa Gailey said her husband was diagnosed with dementia a year ago, but “spiraled down” six months later after his favorite pet German shepherd, Nemo, died of cancer.
“I think as far as the dog world goes, we are losing a valuable asset that put a lifetime of work and professionalism in something he loved. And I am losing someone I will never be able to replace,” an emotional Lisa Gailey said. “But there are people out there that have bits and pieces of that knowledge and I think that’s fantastic.”
Webb agreed with Lisa Gailey. The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office and many other agencies in Florida still use Gailey’s knowledge in their K-9 programs, he said.
“All our program’s techniques are things that Bob passed onto us over the years,” Webb said. “His tracking, all of his apprehension work, his dope work, you know, we mimic everything basically that Bob Gailey taught us.”
And even in death, Gailey is certain to be having fun with his dogs, Johnson said.
“He is where he is at, in heaven with his dogs right now. That’s exactly where he is at,” an emotional Johnson said. “He is in heaven with his dogs.”