Stratford police K9 unit on the front line

STRATFORD — Police dogs and their two-legged partners are four times more likely to get shot than their coworkers, Stratford police officials said.

Lt. Celeste Robitaille has been working with police dogs since 1997. As lieutenant she oversees the Stratford police K9 unit, which is made up of three teams of police dogs and officers.

During the day shift, Officer Jose Dias works with his dog partner, Hex, who just turned three in June. Hex is a German Shepard.

The mid-day shift is covered by Officer David Sheean and his K9 Rebel, a 3-year-old Dutch Shepard.

And the night shift is under the watch of Officer Stephen Santoro and his partner Logan. Logan, a Belgian Malinois, is the baby of the trio at just 2-years-old.

“When the K9 unit responds to something, they’re usually the first ones going into a building to search,” Robitaille said. “Because of that, they’re four times more likely to get shot than any other officer.”

But that risk has never deterred the Stratford K9 unit from responding to a call.

“It’s stressful at times,” Dias said. “But it’s the best job.”

Extensive process

Every police dog is trained for a specialty; all three dogs on the Stratford police force are trained in narcotics.

At its inception, the Stratford police K9 unit would get its dogs from a local pound. Now, Robitaille said, the process is more in depth.

Hex, Rebel and Logan were all imported from overseas.

Robitaille said European countries tend to breed dogs for sporting and for work. She said they undergo temperament and nerve testing, which easily translates to police work.

She said breeding in the U.S. focuses more on pedigree and dog show preparation.

Overseas, the three Stratford police dogs learned obedience, aggression control, evidence retrieval, tracking and handler protection.

But their training didn’t stop once they joined the Stratford police ranks.

“Their training is ongoing; it’s non-stop,” Robitaille said. She said the dogs and their handlers undergo bi-monthly training and refresh their certifications as needed.

Funding a huge factor

With the need for frequent training and re-certification comes the costs to cover it. But nothing compares to the cost of kicking off a K9 unit.

“The initial cost is the big one,” Robitaille said. “That includes purchasing the dog, at least six weeks of schooling, overtime for officers and getting the car equipped for the K9.”

That cost, per team, is an estimated $13,500 for training and housing, and another $9,000 to $10,000 for outfitting the cars for the dogs.

Hex, Rebel and Logan each have bullet and stab protective vests, which were funded by Stratford residents, Dias said.

Now, the unit is looking to raise money to keep its dogs safe.

The department is looking to upgrade its Ace Hot-n-Pop system, which is wired throughout the K9 cruisers to detect temperature flow and alerts the officers when the car shuts off or reaches a certain temperature while the dogs are still inside them.

“Right now we have older models and they’re spotty,” Dias said, adding that sometimes the signals are interrupted when officers go into buildings.

He said it will cost an estimated $899 per cruiser to upgrade the systems, which will come equipped with an app to alert officers of any problems.

Loving dogs is key

Since the dogs go home with the officers and become a part of their families, the job isn’t a task just any officer can handle.

“If you love dogs though, it’s the best job you’ll ever do,” Robitaille added.

Dias got accepted as a K9 handler in Dec. 2016 after applying three times. Robitaille said Dias spent hundreds of hours of his own time researching becoming a handler — including talking to other handlers and going to training as a spectator.

When choosing the right dog for the officers, Robitaille said it’s all about the way the team interacts.

“I looked at body language,” Robitaille said.

She said when choosing the right dog for Dias, she looked at nine dogs in total. Then, Dias and Hex went for a one-on-one walk.

“I just knew it was a good match,” she said.

The two other teams joined the department in April 2017. Robitaille said she chose Rebel and Logan from a group of 13 dogs.

Typically, police dogs will be in service for seven to nine years before they retire. Robitaille said some dogs will retire sooner, others later, based on their personal health. And once the dogs retire, their handlers have the option to buy them from the department — for $1.

Work- v. play-mode

Not every police department has a K9 unit, so Stratford will respond to other towns and cities to help with narcotic busts or searches. And when dogs are responding to a scene, they know it.

“Just how an officer will get a feeling of adrenaline responding to something, the dogs will have a similar reaction,” Dias said.

“The dogs come out of the car hot,” following the commands of their handler, Robitaille said.

Hex, Rebel and Logan were trained not to bark while responding to an incident.

“We don’t encourage them to bark,” Dias said. He said some police dogs might be triggered into barking by the police officer’s sirens. But Dias said it wastes the dog’s energy.

But once the job is done, the dog is given a command that lets them know work is over. Then, the dog is rewarded with its favorite toy.

“It’s like a trade-off system,” Dias said, adding that the dogs grow very attached to one toy that is brought with them everywhere they go, every call they respond to.

And once the dogs get their toy are the command to stop working, they become similar to any other household pet dog.

“Hex would give you kisses all day,” Robitaille said through laughter, standing behind the police station recently, with Hex’s front paws near her shoulders as he licked her face repeatedly.

Rebel, sitting next to Sheean outside their police cruiser, obsessively eyed his favorite toy while Sheean held it over him.

Donations to the Stratford K9 unit can be dropped off at the Stratford Police Department at 900 Longbrook Ave.

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