Drug-Sniffing Canine Stars in National Series

nikitaSutton High School student Caitlin Paul, 18, gets a kiss from

drug-sniffing dog Nikita during the filming of a PBS show called

“Shelter Me” at the high school.

 

(T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG)

 

By: Susan Spencer

Telegram & Gazette Staff

 

SUTTON — Hollywood came to Sutton High School Thursday and the star of the production, a rescued street dog from Puerto Rico, drew as much attention from students as any A-list celebrity.

Nikita, a 17-month-old terrier-Labrador mix who was adopted from Sterling Animal Shelter and trained to detect narcotics for the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit, appeared unfazed by the film crew following him for an upcoming episode of the national PBS series “Shelter Me.”

He was just doing his job, demonstrating to a criminal justice class with his partner, Sgt. Thomas P. Chabot, how he sniffs out and pinpoints hidden drugs.

Two small packets of a heroin derivative, wrapped in coffee filters and folded to the size of a pack of gum, had been surreptitiously placed in one of the student’s backpacks by the sergeant. Nikita, a small bundle of energy, sniffed determinedly from pack to pack. When he found the scent, he promptly sat and touched his nose repeatedly to the drug’s location, in exchange for a treat from Sgt. Chabot.

Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis, who spoke to the class while the camera rolled, said beforehand: “What I love about him is he’s basically a deterrent. He’s a passive-alert dog. He’s not here to scare you, he’s basically here to sniff drugs on you.”

Nikita’s duties include scouring the county Jail and House of Correction’s mailroom and cellblocks for a wide range of drugs, from marijuana and heroin to prescription drugs such as painkillers that are likely to be abused.

His first day on the job, Nikita detected Suboxone, a prescription narcotic, that had been crushed and hidden on the glue of an envelope that came through the mailroom.

“This wonderful shelter pooch is doing so much work for you,” Sheriff Evangelidis, who has two shelter dogs of his own, told the class.

Award-winning film producer and director Steven Latham of Los Angeles, who oversaw the set in the high school classroom, said, “This story is what ‘Shelter Me’ is all about. When Nikita’s given a second chance, he’s got a job, he’s becoming a partner.”

He added, “What I love about this series is you can find these incredible dogs in the shelter; so what does it mean for my family? We’re trying to erase the stigma of shelter pets.”

According to the show’s website, “Shelter Me” is an inspiring series that celebrates shelter pets with positive and uplifting stories. The program tells stories about people’s lives being improved when they adopt a shelter pet.

Every year, 3 million to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized in American shelters, the show information says.

“Shelter Me” is sponsored by Ellen DeGeneres’ pet-food company, Halo, Purely for Pets and by PetSafe.

Nikita’s partner, Sgt. Chabot, reinforced the show’s message of second chances: “He was a street dog in Puerto Rico,” he told the class. “Look at him now: He’s got a job in narcotics detection.”

Nikita spends all day at work with Sgt. Chabot and lives with his family in Ashburnham.

“He’s in the car with me everywhere I go. When I’m doing something, I have to think about him,” he said.

Nikita has benefited from human generosity all around. After he was rescued through the Save Our Satos program affiliated with Sterling Animal Shelter and donated to the sheriff’s office, he received free training for K-9 unit work from the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office. Holden Veterinary Clinic provides free medical care. Employees of a Lancaster business, D’Ambrosio Eye Care, raised more than $1,000 for a bulletproof vest for Nikita.

“They say it takes a village,” Sgt. Chabot said. “This is his village.”

Principal Theodore McCarthy immediately saw the educational benefits of bringing in the K-9 unit and the film crew. He said that the high school has offered a criminal justice class, taught by Michael Whittier, for 16 years. The program offered a way to link what students were learning in the classroom to real life.

“Opportunities like this open it up to kids,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It’s the kind of thing that needs to happen more in school. If you can bring in real-world tie-ins, it means more to the kids.”

The high school students, part of the media-immersed millennial generation, seemed more intrigued by Nikita than by the presence of the film crew that shadowed their class.

Junior Alexis Morris, 16, whose father is a Worcester police officer, said it was “funny” when Nikita detected the drugs in a backpack that had been placed near her feet.

“It was neat to see how well he reacted to it and how he put his nose to it,” she said.

Caitlin Paul, an 18-year-old senior, said, “For a couple of years, I’ve been thinking of being in a K-9 unit myself, so this solidified it.”

While the filmmaking aspect of Nikita’s visit seemed almost transparent, another area student, Rebecca Reese, a freshman from Dracut studying media communications at Anna Maria College, was on hand to learn life on the set.

Ms. Reese was hired as a production assistant for the three days that “Shelter Me” would be filmed in the region. She said she would be holding light reflectors, running errands or doing whatever needed to be done.

“I went to a technical high school and I’m used to shoots like this, but this is the first I’m doing on my own,” she said.

Nikita’s story will air next May in Episode 4 of “Shelter Me.”

The PBS crew also planned to film Nikita, Sgt. Chabot and others at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston, Sterling Animal Shelter, Community Corrections Center in Worcester, the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office and at Sgt. Chabot’s home.