PITTSFIELD -- First of all, don't refer to them as dog officers -- they're animal control officers, which these days means much more than the old name implies.
Dealing with snarling dogs, angry pet owners and wildlife of every stripe remains part of the job, says Joseph Chague, the full-time officer in Pittsfield. But increasingly, so is maintaining certifications through training, dealing with the bureaucratic details of emergency management agencies and assisting police.
"They say the burnout rate for an animal control officer is five years," Chague said with a smile during a recent interview. "I must have burned out more than once and didn't know it."
Now in his 25th year with the program, Chague said that, while things are more complex, the plus side is the city has one of the best trained and supported animal control staffs in the state. He credits a formal connection to the Pittsfield Police Department and strong backing and funding from the police chief and city government.
Referring to an animal control officer association he's active in, Chague said, "I really have one of the best jobs. That's because I have a police chief who gets it, pure and simple."
Chief Michael Wynn "has made training an imperative," Chague said, and he insists animal control officers receive "the same training police officers receive, and the equipment."
That includes training to carry and fire a sidearm and in the use of self-defense sprays, tasers, batons and other weapons. Equipment like bullet-proof vests and handcuffs also is issued to ACOs.
"I think that with all the demands on the department, we need to have a robust animal control program," Wynn said. "We need someone to handle what can be very time-consuming calls, which we would have to send police officers to. It's really cost-effective for us."
The chief said he emphasizes training alongside police because "we really rely on them for a lot of assistance." That could mean at an accident scene when animal control officers direct traffic or deal with pets that were in one of the vehicles.
And Wynn acknowledged with a laugh that there are times -- a wandering bear or other wildlife -- when police officers would rather wait for someone from animal control to respond.
With a revision of state law last year concerning animal control services, training now is mandatory and an officer -- which could mean a select board member or police chief in a small town -- must be designated.
Chague said, "Terry [Moran, a part-time officer in the city] and I are trained within the top 5 percent of ACOs in Massachusetts." Some from smaller towns "are lucky if they have at least a catch pole," he said.
Berkshire County in not unusual, Chague said, in that currently it has only three full-time officers.
Being a section of the police department also is key, he said, in that ACOs have backup from the PPD, while some officers in towns "can be out there on their own."
Chague said City Clerk Linda Tyer and her staff also provide extensive support in sending out notices to dog owners who haven't purchased or renewed a license. The staff has reformed the process to the extent that hundreds more dogs now are licensed in Pittsfield, and reminder letters on up to notices of a fine are systematically sent out.
"They're doing a fantastic job," he said.
Chague said he sometimes feels he's responded to every type of call. "There isn't much that surprises me," he said, "but I still get an occasional call that's hard to believe."
Recently, he said, the unit responded to three motor vehicle crashes within a short period in which pets had to be removed from the scene to temporary shelters.
And he's seen an iguana in a tree, countless pet or wild animal rescues at fire scenes or elsewhere, and some "absolute horrors" at scenes of animal abuse. And, of course, he's been bitten.
"I've been bitten twice," he said. "There isn't an ACO who hasn't been."
Often, it is the human animal that is most dangerous during a call. Chague said the ACOs and police back one another up on their respective calls, and help out by sharing information on a dangerous dog -- or a dangerous person -- that could be inside a residence.
Chague said he's backed up at the scene of drug raids when police must bash in the door and a guard dog is likely behind it. He has also called police after hearing them responding to an apartment he's visited after a vicious animal complaint.
Other than dogs and other pets, calls involving wildlife make up nearly 50 percent of all calls, said Chague, who also acts as city animal inspector. That can range from injured to possibly rabid animals that have to be destroyed to neglected horses or farm animals.
Many other calls to the office seek information concerning wild animals or pets, such as concerning possibly rabid animals.
Chague is vice president of the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts and is active in the certification and other training programs offered by the group in Boylston.
He also is active in regional emergency preparedness efforts, which have come to include plans to rescue animals since Hurricane Katrina left hundreds of pets stranded in New Orleans in 2005.
Chague worked with pet issues for three days in Monson after a tornado struck that area in 2011.
Another new duty the city's ACOs are becoming familiar with concerns appeal hearings to the Animal Control Commission, which began earlier this year to consider dog restraint or other orders issued to pet owners.
Chague said the appeals are good in that they allow more people to deliberate difficult decisions, but he noted that the three hearings held thus far have been long and well attended by the dog owner, complainants and neighbors.
"That shows how passionate people are about animals," he said.
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