K-9 Or Not?

It never fails, every winter I think of one of the worst tragedies I covered as a news reporter. Picture this: a 9-year-old 4th grader ran outside worried about his dog in a snowstorm. He never came home. He was found curled up in a thick underbrush not too far away. The only villain? Cold. Snatched from the warmth of his family because he got lost and froze to death. I waited with the rest of the media masses while the search for this boy continued in Norton, MA, a small town south of Boston. There were police, fire and rescue, and many volunteers, and there were dogs. As a reporter, just waiting was horrible. During these stories, I always felt I’d rather be out there doing, than sitting around, then writing about the outcome.

Suddenly officers headed our way. We all knew the look on their faces as they headed toward us. It was the look of men who had been hit in the gut so hard they could cry, but held it back. It was heart-wrenching. All the police chief said, was, “Press conference at five o’clock.” We all knew what we would be reporting on that night.

Which brings me to our frigid temperatures, our expansive natural woodlands, our children, our elderly and other vulnerable residents, and our police chief’s pursuit to bring a K-9 unit to our town. Chief John Bentley has asked the Lakewood Village board to allow him to begin a K-9 unit within his department. He says he has researched this particular unit since the Department of Homeland Security has grant funds available to train the dog and handler, and provide for its upkeep, including the vehicle, and the part-time officer that would take over while the handler is away for his training course. Chief Bentley has also secured free veterinary costs, and Purina will supply its food. Also, once the dog is here and functioning, Bentley says there is a $20,000.00 annual stipend to maintain the unit. This would be one well cared for, and locally tax-free dog.

Though Lakewood-Busti police have never had a dog, there is plenty of use for one. The chief explains, “I have wanted a dog for years.” However, he adds there were no funds available, and the overall cost to the town and village would be difficult to justify. The dogs the Department of Homeland Security is funding are highly trained explosives detecting dogs as well as patrol dogs. Which of course means that if Lakewood-Busti has one, it would be available if needed for the Department of Homeland Security. However, it will essentially become another member in Lakewood-Busti Police Department that draws no salary, with incalculable benefits.

As part of the explosives training, this dog will be able to detect firearms evidence of all kinds; including guns, spent shell casings, and materials handled by someone who fired a gun, making this k-9 a tremendous asset to the town forensic investigating team. In addition, it is also trained as a patrol dog. This means it will go on routine building checks and alert the officer to any potential safety hazard; it will be highly trained to see or hear danger in advance of even the most experienced officer; and it can also track and attack an aggressor before he reaches for a weapon. Chautauqua County Deputy Sheriff and Canine Hander, Jason Beichner, recalls his dog tracking down a wanted fugitive in a large underground drainpipe, when after about a half mile in pitch black darkness, the dog started barking. Immediately the suspect stood up and surrendered, screaming, “I’ll do anything, just don’t send the dog.”

Finally, this would be one more set of eyes, ears, and a nose to track a loved one who lost his or her way for whatever reason. Chief Bentley recounts an incident just a few weeks ago when an elderly man became disoriented and lost in minus 4 degrees with 20mph winds blowing. The family had already searched for an hour, before calling the police. This kind of cold can kill within a couple of hours. Chief Bentley called the nearest dog and handler in Stockton to help in the search. Knowing this K-9 unit was likely 40 minutes away, and given the potential for tragedy, the chief immediately began a shoulder to shoulder search with his officers. “We got lucky, eventually we found the guy,” says Bentley. However, Bentley says, a dog would have found him in five minutes. Having a dog close at hand, with no cost to the community would provide officers and residents with a bit more peace of mind, and a little less reliance on luck. If in its life-time, this K-9 saves one life, or prevents the kind of tragedy the Norton, MA family went through, it will be time and effort well spent. The Lakewood Board needs to vote on the issue Monday February 24th to meet the grant deadline.

Cara Birrittieri is a Lakewood resident.