Staff Report – The Gardner News
May 24, 2016
WEST BOYLSTON An innovative program at the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, training shelter dogs to become police dogs, is getting recognition from Petco.
“It’s saving the lives of shelter animals and giving them the opportunity to serve the community,” said Lee Domaszowec, the program manager with the Petco Foundation.
“It should be the model for all law enforcement agencies across the country.”
On Friday, May 20, Domaszowec presented Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis with a check for $30,000 to pay for a new kennel at the Worcester County House of Correction for the K-9 unit that serves the jail.
The money comes from the Helping Heroes grant.
Three of the four dogs in the unit are shelter dogs who have been trained to work in law enforcement.
Using shelter dogs for work in jail partly came about out of necessity, Evangelidis said. When he was first elected sheriff, the department was facing a crisis with the K-9 unit.
The dogs in the unit, mostly specially bred and trained German shepherds, were all getting set to retire.
To keep the K-9 unit going would have meant paying to buy new dogs, an expense that was just outside the budget.
Evangelidis felt it important that the jail have a K-9 unit.
Dogs serve a valuable purpose in jails, finding drugs smuggled into the jail before those drugs can wreck havoc among the prisoners.
“We have 1,200 inmates on any given day,” he said.
“I thought it was unacceptable not to have dogs available 24/7.”
Evangelidis and his team in the sheriff’s office worked hard to come up with a solution.
That solution turned out to be Nikita.
A small Labrador-mixed dog, Nikita is not a prototypical police K-9.
“When you think ‘police dog,’ you wait to see the German shepherd,” Evangelidis said.
The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office adopted Nikita from the Sterling Animal Shelter free of charge, and then had him go through specialized training offered by the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office.
Evangelidis said Nikita is now one of the most sophisticated drug-sniffing dogs working in law enforcement.
To prove himself, Nikita was able to find drugs being smuggled into the jail on his first day.
A prisoner was having Suboxone sent to him through the mail in a way most people would not detect.
The drug was crushed and the powder put in the glue closing the envelope, Evangelidis said.
People can’t smell drugs like Suboxone, but Nikita can.
The program has grown to include Jaxx, another small Labrador mix from the Sterling Shelter, and now Duke.
Duke, also a Labrador mix, was donated to the department by a family who could not keep him.
Duke is a bit bigger than Jaxx and Nikita, and just as ready to get to work.
Worcester County Sheriff Deputy Lt. Tom Chabot, the handler for Nikita and Duke, said that these dogs are in some ways better police dogs than German shepherds or other traditional K-9 officers.
“They seem to want to please you more,” he said.
Nikita, Duke and Jaxx are also different in that they are able to be pets as well as police dogs, Chabot said.
His other German shepherd police dogs could never be considered pets, as the working dogs were more like highly-tuned law enforcement tools.
Nikita and Duke are able to be family dogs when they go home, Chabot said.
“They’re more (like) family guys, but when it’s time for work they are 100 percent,” Chabot said.
The department also has a bloodhound, Maya, on the K-9 roster.
Evangelidis wanted to make sure they had a good tracking dog available to find escaped prisoners, and also help area police departments look for missing people.
Domaszowec said the use of shelter dogs is something almost no other law enforcement agency is doing right now.
When Petco Foundation executives found out about the program, they approached Evangelidis about the grant.
Going with the shelter dogs as K-9s gives the dogs a new lease on life, and it shows the community the value even little shelter dogs like Nikita can have.
“No one across the country does it better than the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office,” Domaszowec said.
The $30,000 Helping Heroes Grant award will help provide a year’s worth of dog food, veterinary fees, supplies such as dog beds and water bowls, national bloodhound training, narcotic training aids for the detection dogs, and a new 2,200-square-foot climate-controlled kennel and exercise pen.
The kennel is under construction with help from Worcester County Sheriff’s Office staff.
Officer Steve Salvadoros is leading the construction, with help from inmate work crews.
Former officer Marek Rudnicki is donating his labor to build the roof for the kenne