John Gardner and His Furry Partners

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John Gardner walking with his dog Diesel

John Gardner went from being a BJU Farm Management major to the founder of the Greenville County K-9 Services Unit.

Gardner was a work scholarship student looking to pay his way through college. To reach his goal, he chose the highest paying job on campus—public safety. Back then, public safety officers were trained in multiple areas. They were EMS certified, drove an ambulance and had both firearms and concealed weapons training.

The skills Gardner developed on the job qualified him to become a reserve deputy sheriff upon graduation. As a young man, he never dreamed of a future in law enforcement. But when he first went on the road as a reserve officer, he told his partners, “Y’all get paid to do this? This is fun!”

Barking up the Wrong Tree

Gardner with his dog Diesel at the Greenville County Sheriff's Office Center for Advance Training

While Gardner was in the Police Academy, there was a K-9 training demonstration. Gardner volunteered to let the dog bite him—wearing protective gear, of course—and came to the realization that he wanted to become a canine handler. After being a deputy sheriff for several years, he suggested starting a K-9 program but the idea was rejected.

“We don’t do that” and “We’re not gonna have dogs that bite people” were some of the responses Gardner received. So, he bought his own German Shepherd puppy, named him Meiko, trained him for a year and a half, and had him nationally certified as a police dog. Gardner brought Meiko back to the sheriff but was rejected once again.

It wasn’t until the Vice and Narcotics Unit called asking for a “drug-finding dog” that Meiko and Gardner got to see some action. They accompanied the unit during a search that night and Meiko received multiple compliments. Afterward, the sheriff budged a little, allowing Gardner to use Meiko on call, but never to bring him to the office. Step by step, more officers became handlers, and the K-9 unit was born.

Hounding the Bad Guys

Gardner and Diesel at practice lockers at the Greenville County Sheriff Office Center for Advanced Training

Gardner served as a dog handler for several years, doing searches with and aiding different agencies. Four years into his work with K-9, the sheriff’s office saw a different potential in Gardner. His Farm Management studies and blue-collar knowledge made him a perfect candidate for undercover work. So he grew a mullet, hung out with bikers and drove a rusty conversion van where he hid his dog’s crate. During those years, Gardner would arrest prostitutes in an undercover capacity by night then go to church Sunday morning.

“I had the little old ladies coming over and patting me on the shoulder, saying, ‘We’re praying for you, young man’ because I looked like a drug addict,” laughed Gardner.

The slight judgment was worth it because, through the undercover work, Gardner and his dog were able to arrest and charge several criminals.

Chasing the Gospel

Gardner met a dark side of the world during his years in the K-9 program. Death, drugs and alcohol covered every corner. Through the years, he saw former colleagues fall into the very traps they fought against. “I can’t imagine doing it without faith . . . I can’t even imagine,” said Gardner.  “Bob Jones [University] prepared me spiritually to be a light in a very dark place.”

When he first joined the sheriff’s department he thought that his primary witness focus would be the people in his back seat. But the people who needed the Gospel the most were those working with him. “[BJU] spiritually prepared me to be able to be a witness to my coworkers primarily. They knew my testimony and were tougher on me than anybody else to keep me accountable for my actions.”

Leading the Pack

John Gardner with his dog Diesel at the Greenville County Sheriff's Office Canine Memorial John Gardner and Diesel at the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office Canine Memorial
Rob, another dog handler, was one of those tough coworkers. He acted like a jerk and mocked Gardner constantly until a chain of events changed his life. In 2003, a fellow deputy sheriff was killed in the line of duty. The killer stole the deputy’s weapon and ran into the woods. Rob, Gardner and their dogs were part of the team that followed the killer into the wet and muddy forest. Gunfire erupted and Nick, Gardner’s dog, was hit, taking the bullet for him. Though Nick survived, the killer took his own life. The event was so intense that Gardner said, “It was Greenville, but felt like Vietnam.”

This incident was the last drop in a cupful of traumatic episodes in Rob’s life. He was being severely affected by post-traumatic stress disorder and decided to take some time off from the force. During this time, Gardner was going to a weekend couples’ retreat at the Wilds Christian Camp. Even though they had never gotten along, he invited Rob to come. To Gardner’s surprise, Rob and his wife came. They had been visiting churches during Rob’s time off-duty. That Saturday they came to know Christ. Their lives were completely transformed, and they are still serving the Lord faithfully.

Still Working Like a Dog

After all the work he put in, Gardner says it was hard to walk away from the K-9 program in 2006. Still, he is proud of his work and the growth the program has accomplished since. Currently, Gardner is a beekeeper, which he says is therapeutic. He also owns ProDogTV, a TV production company that features regular dogs that do incredible things.

Despite his front row seats to the evil in this world, Gardner used his time in the K-9 unit to show others the good news of his Savior.

“It is a dangerous job, but I don’t regret any of the time that I was there,” he said.