Old Lyme — The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s police force officially expanded Thursday by 16 legs, four wagging tails and four furry faces eager to help locate lost children and hikers and serve as goodwill ambassadors for the agency.
“When we go into the campgrounds and the parks, the kids come over and ask us questions,” said Environmental Conservation Police Officer Karen Reilly, with her newly certified K-9 partner Hunter on a leash at her side. One of Reilly’s regular patrols with Hunter will be at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison.
“We get a lot of missing children on the beach and the campground,” she said. “It’s like a city there in the summer.”
Hunter and three other Labrador retrievers — Saydee, Ruger and Ellie — along with their handlers Reilly and fellow officers William Logiodice, Holly Bernier and Erin Crossman, graduated from an intensive four-week training program marked by ceremonies Thursday at DEEP’s Marine Headquarters. The training, run by the K-9 trainers from the state police, took place at recreation areas including Rocky Neck in East Lyme, Cockaponset State Forest in Haddam and Hurd State Park in East Hampton, to acquaint them with some of the locations where they will be working.
“We’ve been training in the woods and we’ve been through swamps and in the brush and in urban areas, to acclimate them to traffic,” said Bernier, who described her partner Saydee as “a very lovable young girl with a large amount of drive.”
The new K-9 unit is DEEP’s first in more than a decade, said EnCon Police Commander Kyle Overturf.
“You can’t beat Labs for public outreach,” he said.
EnCon officers undertake about 30 to 40 search-and-rescue operations each year, he added.
The dogs will be used in state parks, forests and boat launches for search-and-rescue operations and evidence recovery as well as routine patrols, and may be trained in the future for drug detection, cadaver searches and wildlife detection, DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Frechette said.
Three of the dogs were puppies born to a dog that came from South Carolina to Connecticut Labrador Rescue in Haddam, while the fourth came from a litter born to a dog owned by the Case family of Colebrook. All the dogs were donated to DEEP. The dogs have been with their handlers since they were puppies.
“These officers really made a commitment,” Frechette said. “These are working animals that need constant reinforcement and training 24-7.”
She thanked state police for providing the training.
“When the need arises, we’ll be able to help you with some of your tracking needs, and you will be there to help us,” Frechette said, speaking to state police officials at the ceremony.
Each of the officer-handlers and their dogs will be assigned to patrol a different region of the state. Logiodice and Ruger are assigned to the shoreline region from Old Lyme to Stonington, including popular parks such as Rocky Neck and Harkness and boat launches on Long Island Sound.
“We’ll keep it random, so no one can predict where we’re going to be,” he said.
Ruger, he added, is “mellow outside of work, but when I put the harness on, he gets very motivated as far as tracking.”