By Susan Spencer
Telegram & Gazette
October 7, 2015
Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis and Lt. Thomas Chabot of Ashburnham are seen Wednesday with drug detection dog Nikita.
The life of Nikita, a 3-year-old mutt adopted from Sterling Animal Shelter, is a Cinderella story.
Rescued off the streets of Puerto Rico, the 26-pound terrier-Labrador mix found a home with the Worcester County Sheriff’s department, where he works as a passive-alert narcotic-detection dog.
This fall, he’s capping his canine fairy-tale dream with red carpet appearances for the national PBS series highlighting animal shelters, “Shelter Me: Partners for Life.”
Nikita, his human partner Lt. Thomas P. Chabot, Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis and Sterling Animal Shelter Executive Director Leigh Grady were among those invited to Beverly Hills’ Writers Guild Theater Sept. 29 for the worldwide debut of the episode featuring Nikita’s law enforcement success.
On Oct. 20, the red carpet will roll out again at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in Worcester for the regional premiere.
Film producer and director Steven Latham of Los Angeles oversaw filming two years ago on location at Sutton High School, the county Jail and House of Correction, the Worcester Community Correction Center and at the Plymouth County Sheriff’s department, where some 30 shelter dogs from law enforcement around the state have been trained for service.
“Nikita’s future was rewritten,” Mr. Latham said in an interview.
“They got a great dog that you don’t even think of as a K-9 … that’s turned into a powerhouse,” he said. “It’s changed the image of shelter animals.”
The series aims to shine a spotlight on the crisis in animal shelters, according to Mr. Latham. Six to eight million cats and dogs are entering shelters in the United States and half of them are euthanized.
But Nikita’s experience demonstrates that far from being “throw aways,” these dogs can excel in roles including law enforcement and as friendly family pets.
Sheriff Evangelidis has brought in another shelter dog, Jaxx, because of Nikita’s success.
“It’s so progressive and so smart,” Mr. Latham said about the sheriff’s shelter-dog program, “I wanted them to be the model for the country.”
“What I love about the show is it represents law enforcement in a positive light. It represents shelter dogs in a positive light,” Mr. Evangelidis said.
His department adopted Nikita when an older dog was retiring and his budget didn’t have the thousands of dollars usually required for a purebred German shepherd, Belgian Malinois or other typical K-9 unit.
Sterling Animal Shelter donated Nikita, a Lancaster business, D’Ambrosio Eye Care, raised more than $1,000 for a bulletproof vest, training was free at the Plymouth County Sheriff’s department, and Holden Veterinary Clinic provides free medical care.
“We believe this is the perfect dog,” Mr. Evangelidis said. “Shelter dogs can do everything you need as well as any other dog, if you give them the opportunity.”
Nikita’s small, wiry size, not your typical imposing police dog, also works to his advantage. He can get under car seats, under bunks and in tight corners that would be out of bounds to larger dogs.
Out in the community, Nikita draws people to him, when he’s not wearing his collar indicating he’s in working mode, rather than scaring them away.
“It worked out to be a perfect fit for what we need him for,” Lt. Chabot said.
Nikita’s work day is busy. He sniffs for narcotics, particularly prescription painkillers, in incoming mail, on inmates, on offenders in community rehabilitation programs and wherever he might be called throughout the county. When he detects drugs, he sits down and places his nose where he finds the scent.
Nikita is food-reward trained, in which Lt. Chabot hands him a morsel to reward him for making a find.
That system applies around the clock, even when Lt. Chabot takes Nikita home at night to his wife and daughter. The lieutenant hides a packet of pseudo-heroin or cocaine somewhere around the house for Nikita to find before he is fed.
“He works for his breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Lt. Chabot said.
Mr. Evangelidis said Nikita has also been a deterrent to smugglers. The incidence of drugs found on site has gone down significantly with Nikita around.
But even a hardworking dog like Nikita deserves a night out now and then.
In Beverly Hills, “He was living the life,” according to Lt. Chabot. Nikita hobnobbed with actor and series host Jon Hamm’s shelter companion, Ruby, who sat in the front row with Nikita’s entourage at the screening.
Mr. Evangelidis said, “After the show, everybody was around him, wanting their picture taken with (Lt.) Tom (Chabot) and the dog. He was a celebrity.”
Worcester will have a chance to bask in Nikita’s star power at the Hanover Theatre’s “Shelter Me” premiere Oct. 20. A pre-reception starts at 6 p.m. and the screening is at 7 p.m.
Tickets are available by donation and all proceeds will go to support shelter animals.
For tickets go to the Hanover Theatre’s website, http://www.thehanovertheatre.org/showinfo.php?id=268, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.