Major VIII will never know his finest hour.

The D.C. Court of Appeals yesterday honored the 15-year-old veteran D.C. police dog when it affirmed the conviction of a rapist Major VIII had sniffed out.

But as the city's highest tribunal rendered its decision and thereby credited the work of one of the city's finest track dogs, a sad announcement came from the police department: Major VIII, limping; with arthritic hips, had been put to sleep on Wednesday.

"It's a great victory for police dogs," declared Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry M. Tapp, who handled the case before the Appeals Court. "It's too bad MAJOR VIII won't be around to savor the victory."

Major VIII helped solve more than 100 felony cases for police, according to a spokeman. In 1978, the German shepherd was awarded a medal of valor by D.C. Police Chief Brutell M. Jefferson for saving the life of his handler, officer Frederick Lewis of the Canine Corps. Major VIII was stabbed three times during an assault on Lewis, but recovered.

The rape case possibly will be Major VIII's greatest legacy, as the unanimous appeals court decision seemed to attach great weight to investigative work by police dogs and thus may have implications in future cases.

The case involved the investigation of a rape that occurred at gunpoint in 1977 in front of the Ria Restaurant, located at Rhode Island Avenue and Otis Street NE.

According to the court's opinion, written by Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr. and joined by Judges John W. Kern III and William C. Pryor, police officer Lewis arrived on the scene with his tracking dog, Major VIII.

Major VIII detected a scent and followed it into the restaurant to an empty chair at a table, where a group of people were sitting.

Police later determined that minutes before the dog arrived, a man named Paris L. Starkes had been sitting in the chair.

Starkes eventually was arrested, charged and convicted of the rape. During his trial, a Superior Court judge permitted testimony about Major VIII's police dog work.

R. Kenneth Munday, Starkes' defense attorney, protested, contending that since the dog could not be cross-examined, testimony regarding its actions should not be permitted into the trial and the conviction should be overturned.

Newman's decision upheld the admissibility of the police dog's investigative work as evidence. "The capacity of trained dogs to follow a human's trail has long been known," Newman wrote, adding that about 30 states allow "bloodhound" evidence to be used in trials.

Newman noted that Major VIII was qualified to use the dog, the dog had experience tracking human beings, the trail of the rapist was not "stale and contaminated" and the dog had been found to be reliable in past cases.

Newman also cited MAJOR VIII's higher education, namely "courses in agility, obedience, and scent training."

Finally, the appellate court said that testimony from other witnesses corroborated MAJOR VIII's police work.

"That opinion is for the dogs," defense lawyer Munday said.

"I was very pleased the way Major VIII performed that particular night," Lewis recalled yesterday. "I felt real good about the way he was tracking -- he had his nose to the ground and was pulling me real hard."

According to Lewis, however, Major VIII had contracted arthritis of the hip joints, and was having trouble moving around. The dog, who retired in 1977, was put to sleep peacefully, police said.

Meanwhile, Lewis said he has been assigned a new police track dog -- Blitz V -- who is working out just fine.