DRACUT -- If there was such as thing as a National Canine League draft, the Police Department's new Dutch shepherd, Viper, probably would have been 2014's number-one pick, according to police Chief Kevin Richardson.
"They say he hits like a truck when he takes someone down," said Richardson on Wednesday in the police-station parking lot, as he watched K-9 Officer Zachary Coleman somehow succeed in getting his new, 21-month-old, super-energetic, four-legged companion to sit still for some photos.
Viper's dark-brown and black markings were a blur for most of the 20 minutes Coleman spent answering questions about his new best friend, who appeared hungry to sink his pearly white choppers into whatever or whomever his next task, or suspect, might be.
"He knows his toys are in here," said Coleman, as Viper stretched his leash to straddle a tool box in the back of his specially-equipped police vehicle, then gnawed at Coleman's pocket where he'd stuffed a tethered orange ball for a later reward.
"He's a good dog, a great dog," said Coleman. "As you can tell, he doesn't like to sit still very long. It wouldn't make him the best house pet, but in the police world you want that dog that has that high drive. He wants to work so he can get rewarded. He has that hyper-drive that's perfect for apprehensions, building searches, and evidence recoveries. He'll keep going 100 miles an hour until he finds what we tell him to.
Dracut police were matched with the Florida-born Viper by Northeast Canines of Raynham, which specializes in identifying and placing dogs that are most suitable and capable of doing police work.
Coleman and Viper trained together at the Boston Canine Academy for several weeks before beginning their regular afternoon-evening shifts in Dracut. They continue to attend training sessions twice a month, and soon will put Viper through drug-detection courses to complete his training by his second birthday in August, Coleman said.
"It's a huge asset," said Richardson. "We did have a canine program previously, but the dog unfortunately passed away and we really didn't have the funding to restart it. We can't thank the Stanton Foundation enough for providing the funding giving us the opportunity to start this program back up."
Dracut has not had a K-9 unit since Mason, a 4-year-old scent-discriminating German shepherd who was partnered with Officer William Bailey, died unexpectedly on July 12, 2009, of an apparent coronary problem.
Viper's purchase and three years' worth of food, training and equipment were made possible by a $25,000 grant from the New York-based Stanton Foundation. The Stanton Foundation was established upon the death of Frank Stanton, the longtime CBS-TV network president and former chairman of the American Red Cross, who loved dogs. Stanton died at his home in Boston in 2006 at the age of 98.
Coleman, 29, graduated from Dracut High School in 2003. He joined the Dracut police force after four years in the Coast Guard. Growing up, Coleman had a female German shepherd he named "Rinny" after his favorite TV show, "Rin Tin Tin." His wife picked out the second dog in his life, a miniature poodle. While the tiny poodle and Viper get along famously at home, the "alpha dog" in Viper doesn't allow him to play well with bigger dogs, Coleman said.
Also, as much as the boys and girls and adult residents of Dracut might wish to do it, Viper is not the kind of dog that people can walk up to and pat on the head, the officer cautioned.
"Many police dogs are great-looking dogs and people want to pat them, but we don't allow it strictly because we train them to apprehend people," said Coleman. "Most dogs bite in defense and let go, whereas these dogs we teach to bite, hold on, and pull people to the ground. He's friendly; he listens to me, but he's still an animal, and God forbid you get the dog on a bad day and someone touches him who's not supposed to. You can't turn back time. It's a liability issue, so it's a line we don't even pretend to cross."
Though it's still early in what Coleman hopes will be a decade-long police career for Viper, the new recruit has already had an impact in Dracut.
"He's a good deterrent also," said Coleman. "We had a call to a domestic disturbance where we were told the suspect doesn't want to come out of the house. We bring the dog out, the suspect hears the dog barking, and immediately he says, 'OK, I'm coming out.'
"He gives us that help, that extra step ahead that we need," added Coleman. "He's a good dog for us, good for the town, good for me."
Next steps for Viper will also include obtaining funding for a bullet-proof vest that can be outfitted with cameras, and enlisting him in NEMLEC's Rapid Response Team, the chief said.
Coleman said he has begun researching what other grants or charitable funding are available to pay for Viper's equipment and food after year three, when the initial grant money is spent.
Viper doesn't know it yet, but the highlight of his week will occur after dark Thursday or Friday in Wilmington.
"We'll wait until the sun goes down and do some realistic night-tracking. We'll have people hide out in the woods and have him find them. And I'll reward him with that toy," said Coleman. "If it's raining, cold, snowing, that might be a problem for me, keeping my feet dry, but it doesn't matter to him. He loves it."
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