By CBSMiami.com Team

OCALA, Fla. (CBSMiami/AP) — A nonprofit that raises money to fund equipment and purchases for K-9 units nationwide could soon make a famous Marion County police dog become known across the state.

Drago, a 5-year-old German shepherd and former Marion County Sheriff’s Office deputy, is featured on a potential license plate for K9s United.

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The organization is campaigning to achieve 3,000 pre-orders by October 2022 to put the tag into production.

The plate features Drago, who is now retired, alongside late K-9 Ryker, a Belgian Malinois from the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office. Above the two dogs, a message reads, “Because my service matters.”

K9S UNITED SUPPORTS LAW ENFORCEMENT UNITS NATIONWIDE

“Never in a million years when I started K9s United would I have thought that I’d have my own license plate or the opportunity to have our own license plate,” founder Debbie Johnson said.

Johnson founded the organization six years ago after hearing about the death of K-9 Baron in St. John’s County and learning about budgetary needs among K-9 units.

“We help fund whatever the need is that’s not being met within their budget,” she said. “We’ve donated anywhere from a dog to a harness and everything in between, whatever the equipment is, whether it’s training equipment, whether it’s a heat alarm for the vehicle.”

They have also expanded into training seminars after many requests from K-9 units. Last week, the group hosted over 70 local, state and international law enforcement units at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion in Ocala for a training workshop.

DRAGO WAS FUNDED AND NAMED BY MARION RESIDENTS

Deputy Jeremie Nix, who was Drago’s handler, said he was fortunate to have his needs met as a K-9 handler who’s been with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office for over 20 years.

“Being a part of this organization has shown me that that is actually a rarity across the country,” he said of K-9 units having appropriate funding. “There’s so many agencies that don’t have the budgetary means to buy the things that they need.”

In addition to providing funding, K9s United has advocated for stronger legal penalties for intentionally harming law enforcement dogs, a measure that passed as Florida Senate Bill 96 in 2019.

Following that success, the government also authorized K9s United for a potential specialty license plate in 2020 if 3,000 are pre-ordered by October 2022. Of three choices featuring law enforcement dogs, voters selected the rendering of Drago and Ryker, which over 400 people have pre-ordered.

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“Drago was a really, really great working dog,” Nix, who is also a K9s United board member, said. “We had a fantastic relationship, and we had a really, really good working career that ended very successfully and on a good note.”

Nix says that while Drago is now happily retired living at his home, he belongs to all of Marion County.

“Drago was actually bought by tons of small donations from citizens all over the county, so that fundraiser was done like $5 at a time, $50 here,” he said. “Drago was their dog, and then to top that off, Drago was named the same way. We put it out on social media, and we let the citizens vote.”

LICENSE PLATE REVENUE COULD PROVIDE $75,000 ANNUALLY

The license plates can be purchased for $33 at the DMV or k9sunited.org, and $25 of the cost and annual renewal fee goes directly to K9s United.

Johnson and Nix stressed that motorists do not have to be ready to get a new plate immediately, as they are purchasing a voucher that can be redeemed any time after the plates go into production. If the goal is not met, vouchers can go toward other specialty plates or be refunded.

“Even if we just sold the 3,000, that would be an annual $75,000 coming into the org so we can continue to do what we do,” Johnson said. “We’re all volunteer. We don’t have any paid staff.”

Johnson says Florida law enforcement officials, dog lovers and K-9 unit supporters have been among those pre-ordering plates.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of people will know K-9 Drago. He’s got quite the reputation in Marion County,” Johnson said.

Nix is also known in the county for saving the life of an infant who had stopped breathing in 2018. He had attempted CPR and rushed the baby to the hospital, where doctors revived the child.

The license plate, however, puts K-9s like Drago and their importance in the spotlight.

“The citizens purchased him. The citizens named him. He was out there protecting the citizens,” Nix said. “It’s really important for the Marion County citizens to know that their dog is on this Florida license plate, and it would be awesome to see those plates on cars all over Marion County.”

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(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

CBSMiami.com Team