'Canine Cadets': Legacy fund brings two puppies to Woodbury K-9 force
Woodbury police officers looked on as two 10-week-old Belgian Malinois puppies snuffled around in the grass. Though they were looking for hot dogs, the puppies were also learning important tracking techniques.
Sgt. Jason Posel, the city's head K-9 trainer, calls it "putting meaning to odor." As Posel walked around in a small patch of grass, laying down hot dog pieces as he went, he had also flattened the grass with his feet.
A key part of the puppies' tracking training, he said, is associating human smell with the smell of trampled vegetation, with the hot dogs added in as rewards. As the puppies' training goes on, fewer hot dog pieces will be dropped, and eventually they learn to sniff out humans on their own. When they become working police dogs, their main purpose will be using their noses to find missing children, vulnerable adults, suspects and evidence.
On Wednesday, Sept. 5, the Woodbury police department accepted the two puppies, named Buster and Cirrus, as gifts from the Woodbury Police K9 Fund. The non-profit, which is independent from the police department, was created in 2015 by Donna Smith-Stafford to honor her husband, Bruce Stafford, who passed away suddenly in 2014. Bruce was a Woodbury firefighter for 22 years and served as chief. He was also a paramedic for 35 years with HealthEast Care System and St. Paul Saints fan services.
On the fund's website, Smith-Stafford said she established the fund to show her "deepest appreciation to Woodbury Public Safety."
"Bruce's legacy will continue in support of his brothers and sisters in public safety," she wrote.
Along with Buster and Cirrus, the fund also helped purchase 3-year-old police dog Roguen a few years ago. The department was also able to purchase single-dose Narcan nasal spray for each K-9 officer through the fund. Just like in humans, Narcan is used if the dogs come in contact with potentially deadly drugs.
The gift of the puppies marks the beginning of a new program the police department is calling "Canine Cadets." Up until recently, Woodbury has received dogs who were around a year old that had been raised and trained in other countries. On top of needing to be taught commands in English, the dogs would have limited, if any, tracking training. Buster and Cirrus, on the other hand, were bred locally, and the rest of their litter was also raised with police dog training in mind.
"So what we're really looking at doing is developing those skills with these dogs at an early age," Posel said. "It would be similar to a foreign language immersion school for kids, basically using that same philosophy."
Buster and Cirrus will likely begin working at one year old. Around this time, two of the department's four police dogs are set to retire. Buster, assigned to Officer Brian Cline, will take the place of his current dog, 6-year-old Nova. Cirrus, assigned to Officer Natalie Bauer, will take the place of her current dog, 7-year-old Bosco.
While it's not unique for a police department to train dogs from such a young age, the Woodbury police department is doing something new. Following a model used in Canada and in Europe, Stafford-Smith said, new K-9 handlers will be trained right alongside the puppies.
Officers Bauer and Cline, who are current K-9 handlers, will have nearly constant contact with their puppies, but Buster and Cirrus will each live with a K-9 handler-in-training.
"We're going to have non-handler police officers who are aspiring handlers working with these dogs hand-in-hand in a mentorship role with our (current) handlers to help develop them," Posel said.
Other early training for the puppies includes exposure to particular scents and unfamiliar environments they may encounter as police dogs, like being on slippery floors and around loud noises, Posel said. The dogs and handlers typically have two training sessions each month.
Looking to the future, Smith-Stafford said the goal is to continue adding K-9s to the department so one can be on duty 24 hours a day. The fund also helps send two handlers each year to national training sessions.
Adding puppies to the police force is also cheaper in general. Year-old police dogs often cost around $9,000, while puppies cost about $2,000 each.
If the new Canine Cadets program is successful, Smith-Stafford said she plans to start the process over and add more puppies once Buster and Cirrus go on to replace Nova and Bosco.
With money coming from outside of city budgets, "we're able to get a jump on what the needs of the community are," she said.
For more information or to make a donation, visit https://www.woodburyk9fund.org/. Updates on the puppies will be shared on the organization's Facebook page, Woodbury Police K9 Fund.