Sheffield to add some teeth to its force with K-9 unit

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SHEFFIELD — When two girls got lost in the woods outside town this winter, it took emergency responders three hours to find them.

If Sheffield had a K-9 officer, Police Chief Eric Munson said, that search time could have been cut to 15 minutes.

"They were scared; they were hiding," Munson said of the girls. "A police dog would have found them right away."

Having a K-9 available also would have saved money, he said, and reduced stress on the volunteer firefighters who helped in the search.

But bringing a trained dog onto the force requires a larger department budget and an officer dedicated to working with it — two things Sheffield was lacking.

But thanks to a grant from a New York City-based foundation, the town will soon join the growing list of Berkshire departments that boast their own K-9 officer.

"Over the last four to five years, I'd say there were 100 calls that could have used K-9 assistance on the law enforcement side," Munson said. "The faster we can get to someone, the better for everyone."

Several communities, including Adams, Dalton, Great Barrington and Pittsfield, as well as the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, already have their own K-9 units.

Sheffield is able to start a K-9 thanks to the commitment of recently promoted full-time officer Cameron Forest, who will train with the dog, and a grant from the Stanton Foundation — the same organization behind the K-9 units in North Adams and Dalton.

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The nonprofit, named after a late CBS broadcast executive, lists canine welfare as one of its three goals — the other two are international security and protecting the First Amendment. Stanton will pay for the purchase of the dog, its training, associated equipment and an officer to cover for Forest when he's away for 12 weeks of intense dog training with the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office.

Berkshire County Sheriff's Office Capt. Dwane Foisy, who trains most of the K-9s in Western Massachusetts, said there's an art to his craft. The dog and the police officer partner have to be simpatico, and the K-9 has to have excellent obedience skills.

In his more than a decade of preparing pups for police work, Foisy said he has had to flunk only one dog.

"They become important parts of the departments they're on," Foisy said. "But they've got to keep up the training."

Training includes obedience, search and recovery as well as narcotics detection. Some dogs go on to train in explosives detection as well.

Police dogs train about once a week in Pittsfield with Foisy to keep up their skills.

Munson said he expects the new furry officer will be busy once trained. He'll be working in Sheffield and helping other communities that need K-9 assistance.

He said the newest member of the department will likely be the most popular, as well.

"There's a whole community side to having a dog on the department," Munson said. "People want to see them, and they become the rock stars of the department."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4632.


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