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K-9 unit may become reality for Wilbraham

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM The newest member of the Wilbraham Police Department may not be what one would expect. He's short, blond, has a big nose and goes only by the name of Ben. Ben would be the first dog in a new K-9 unit for the WPD if the unit is approved by the Board of Selectmen at their Nov. 19 meeting.

Last Tuesday, the selectmen held a special meeting to hear a proposal from Capt. Raymond Kallaugher of the WPD for a K-9 unit. The proposal came about after the Wilbraham Masonic Lodge offered to donate a specially trained single scent discrimination dog to the police department.

"In late August, I received a phone call from Les Lohnes [State Assistant Director of the Masonic Child Identification Program (CHIP)], asking if we were interested in a K-9 for the department," Kallaugher said. "It was always something we'd desired but a concern has always been funding."

The CHIP program is billed as "the most comprehensive child ID system in the world," according to Lohnes. It uses a child's fingerprints, toothprints and saliva from when the toothprint was made, plus DNA from a cheek swab to gather information. All students in Wilbraham have been included in the CHIP program.

"The dog could use the DNA swab to find a lost child," Kallaugher explained. "It dovetails. These two programs could work well together."

The dog is a yellow labrador retriever currently in North Carolina at a training facility. He is one of only 20 in the nation trained in single scent discrimination, which is particularly useful in tracking down lost children, lost elders and criminals. Kallaugher explained that the dog is used only for tracking and trailing and has never been aggressively trained.

"This dog would make searches less man power intensive," Kallaugher stated. "It would be the only one of its kind in Western Massachusetts." Another similar dog is located in Dracut, Mass., north of Lowell and that dog "has had some serious success," according to Kallaugher.

The nearest state police K-9 units are normally located at least 45 minutes away, in Worcester, Sturbridge or Holden, he added.

Kallaugher believes the use of a K-9 unit would be a boon for Wilbraham. "Missing and abducted children are a community's worst nightmare," he said. "That's when time is of the essence. The quicker you can find a person, the easier it is to find that person alive. These dogs are designed to find kids."

This particular dog is certified for up to 36 hours after a person is reported missing and has successfully completed a five day old track in North Carolina. He can also assist in evidence discovery and determine who held a weapon. Kallaugher said he hopes to cross-train the dog to detect narcotics as well.

"The dog is essentially a tool that sits in the backseat," Kallaugher stated. "It would be available off-duty upon request."

The addition of a K-9 unit would not require the hiring of a new police officer or the purchase of a new patrol vehicle. The Masonic Lodge has offered to donate the cage needed for the backseat of a police vehicle.

Timothy Morrow of the Springfield K-9 unit told the selectmen he's been a dog handler for 12 years and has come to Wilbraham dozens of times to assist in searches.

"It would be much easier for a dog to locate someone out here than it would be in the city," Morrow said. "There's a lot of red tape to go through before a Springfield dog can come to Wilbraham. Having your own dog would be advantageous."

"CHIP is totally committed," Lohnes said. "We're fully equipped to totally fund this proposal." When Ben retires from the force, the Masonic Lodge will donate another dog. Ben is valued at $15,000.

"After 23 years, you don't get excited about a whole lot," Kallaugher said. "This excites me. It could be a very, very positive thing for the community with the potential to save a lot of money."

The Eastfield Hospital for Animals has offered to cover all the medical care costs of the dog as long as its in service and the Wilbraham Junior Women's Club has offered to donate food.

There would approximately $1,400 a year in recurring expenses, covering $1,200 training and re-certification fees, plus cleaning supplies and toys.

Michael Whitney of the Ludlow K-9 unit told those in attendance about his town's K-9 gift fund, which needed $10,000 to get off the ground and had $25,000 collected within a month.

"The only required overtime for a dog officer is a half hour a day three and a half hours a week to care for the dog," Whitney explained.

When it comes to funding, Morrow said "K-9 units are the most sought after when people want to donate." Companies as far away as California have donated to the Springfield K-9 unit.

The mutual aid agreement between local cities and towns states any outside aid lasting less than four hours will not be billed. The dog from Ludlow has been called into Wilbraham three times in the past two months, according to Whitney.

Selectman David Barry said, "I don't see this as a high risk program. My questions have been answered. This program has a good chance of working and it would be a good opportunity for this town."