Reading, PA -  After 13 years as an officer with the Reading Police Department, Mark Hackney is taking on a new challenge.

He's been training with a new partner for months, getting him ready for the demands of patrolling the city.

It's been difficult teaching a partner that can't talk and can communicate only through body language.

That's because Hackney's new partner has four legs, a wet nose and a wagging tail.

On Sunday, Hackney and Nero, a German shepherd, graduated from training at the Reading police kennel next to the airport in Bern Township.

"It's been a great experience," Hackney said.

He and Nero were presented with certificates from Deputy Police Chief James Marasco and a representative of state Sen. Judy Schwank.

Joshua Faust, field training officer with the police department, also gave Hackney a plaque on behalf of himself and the other dog handlers.

Nero becomes the sixth dog in the department, Faust said. Like him, four of the other dogs are trained to search for drugs. The fifth is trained to find bombs.

"I can't express all the work that goes into these dogs between the handler and the dog," Faust said.

Hackney and Nero were put to the test Sunday in various demonstrations including searches, tracking and apprehending suspects and obedience.

The other dog handlers and their partners were there to exhibit what these dogs are capable of, such as jumping to the top of a car to nab an unruly suspect.

The department's dog handlers are like a brotherhood and everybody trains with each other and helps with each other's problems, Faust said.

Officers are responsible for taking care of their K-9 partners, including feeding them, taking them to veterinarian appointments and bringing them home when off duty.

"The bond is unbelievable," Faust said. "We're with these dogs more than with our families."

Hackney compared it to having a four-legged child.

"He's part of the family," he said.

Nero is Hackney's first pet and he said he can't imagine what life would be like without him.

He also said he never truly understood the significance of the department's K-9 unit until he got firsthand experience with his training.

"It's insane to see how important this unit is to the city," Hackney said.

Contact Matt Nanci: 610-371-5095 or mnanci@readingeagle.com.