Saugerties’ newest K-9 officer is getting schooled

Officer Jen Culver and Romulus. (Photo by Christina Coulter)

After a hard-fought back-and-forth over whether to eliminate the position, town police officer Jennifer Culver was named a K-9 handler last month. She and 13-month-old Romulus, a $6,000 Belgian Malinois paid for by private donations, have already begun their extensive five-month training period at the United States Police Canine Association facility in Carmel. Culver, a Broome County native who previously worked as a veterinary tech, said the K-9 angle was why she specifically sought out the Saugerties Police Department after completing her police training at SUNY Ulster.

“I always liked training dogs so that aspect was always there,” said Culver, who’s now worked for the town police for just over two years. “I began handling search dogs, and I really liked being a canine handler. I always wanted to become a cop, so I decided to go it before I got too old. A follow-your-dreams sort of thing.”

About the transition to Saugerties and the force, she spoke in glowing terms: “I love it. It’s a great town, a nice village, the department is wonderful, we have a very supportive chief and a good group of officers, the residents are easy to interact with. It’s got a good community feeling but it’s a big area — you don’t get bored easily.”

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As easy as it has been for Culver to find her place in Saugerties, she said she is aware of the need to keep up a strong and well-equipped police force. “I think there would’ve been a lot more drug activity as soon as dealers were aware that there was no longer a narcotics dog working the street,” she said. 

Culver has a track record of training dogs — she has worked with animals in bed-bug detection, for security purposes and for search and rescue capabilities. As a hobbyist, she has competed in American Kennel Club obedience competitions as well as the “Schutzhund,” an obedience competition specifically geared towards German shepherd and their tracking abilities. Her present dog pack at home consists of German shepherds Anika, Reina and Zuren, along with a group of pugs — Frankie, Franny, Finley, Fiona and Freddy. Notably, Culver lent a “biosensor” dog that she had trained to the Saugerties Police Department in March to search the Esopus Creek for a missing person, whose remains were found at the bottom of the creek near Washburn Terrace within 15 minutes of the dog’s search.

“I was never allowed to have a dog when I lived at home,” said Culver. “My aunt always had dogs, and her husband at the time ran a boarding kennel, so I was always around a lot of dogs when I was a kid. I spent my summers with my aunt, and she gave me all the tools and the dogs to practice training on when I was a kid. I guess that’s kind of how I developed my passion. She absolutely loved dogs, and so I developed an obsession with dogs and dog breeds, and learning all I could about dogs. [My aunt] just passed last year of cancer — I wanted to have her see me become a canine handler, but she got too sick.”

Active pup

As Culver puts it, Romulus, who already weighs in at 75 pounds, is “full of piss and vinegar.” Throughout Culver’s interview at the police department, he wrestled with a portion of fire hose on the floor in a sort of alligator-style death roll, panting and whining. This frenzied energy, along with his predilection toward mouthing toys, are ideal traits in a potential police dog. In addition to their tandem training sessions through the state Department of Criminal Justice Services, Romulus’ training also takes place at home.

“You want to encourage specific behaviors. The puppy uses his nose, you want to make it clear that when he uses his nose for work, he gets food, he gets treats. You want that food drive, for him to be willing to work for his food. You want him to have the prey drive, which is the chasing of items — you help that out by playing with toys. When he searches out narcotics, he gets food or a ball. You want him to be a bold, forward dog who isn’t afraid to go into dark rooms or slick stairs – a dog who is not afraid of gunfire.”

Already, Romulus appears attuned to Culver, who held him back stoically on a leash despite not appearing to weigh much more than her partner. Although she has only been working with Romulus for a few weeks now, reaches his paw through cage bars to touch her when they drive in their K-9 vehicle. He has already been trained in a European language — police dogs trained in varying other languages, often Czech, German or French, to prevent those other than the handler from commanding the animal.

“You’ve got pretty much three facets — tracking, narcotics detection, and handler protection,” said Culver of their formal training. “It’s definitely a higher caliber of dog when trained in those aspects. My search dogs are trained to either track air scents, find live people or human remains, or follow a scent on the ground. For police canines, it’s a much more honed-in set of skills.”

Confidence of the chief

Police Chief Joseph Sinagra, who was a canine handler himself with the Town of Ulster before coming to Saugerties, was a particularly loud proponent for the maintenance of now-retired Sgt. Michael Craft and his K-9 Sarah (whom he adopted for $1 from the town after his retirement) and feels strongly that Culver is the right officer for the job.

“When I came here in December of 2011, we didn’t have any female officers in the department,” he said. “I started recruiting females, and female officers bring a totally different level of play into the community and to our agency. All of the female officers we’ve hired have helped to round out the department. Officer Culver’s energy level is unbelievable — it’s contagious and when you’re around her it catches on.”

Sinagra said that routine checks of the high school lockers and parking lot in Saugerties would probably be continued when Romulus graduates. (The state officially stopped training dogs in marijuana detection this year, but Romulus is being trained to detect cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin.)

Sinagra recalled taking his own K-9 into elementary school settings, in which he was docile enough to allow children to pull on his ears and tail. However, he was quick to note that police canines are employees, not pets.

“Their primary focus is to protect their officer,” he said. “You can’t just walk up and start petting a police canine — they may take your movements as aggressive. If we don’t address it with the canine, people may address peoples’ innocent movements as aggressive. They’re one of our tools in our belt, and they have to be treated that way. Partners protect one another.”

He said that, during his time a chief in Saugerties, no police dog has ever bitten a suspect in the process of doing its job. “They are taught to track people down, if they have to protect a handler of course they bite, but we don’t send our canines after people to bite them — we’re not using the canines to torture people,” he explained. “If you get bitten by a police canine, it’s because you’re fighting an officer.”

While K-9’s are trained to “bite and hold” to restrain criminals attempting to evade police, Sinagra said in his experience, the dog barreling into a suspect has done the trick. He said that the most-used ability of police dogs within the department involve smell detection, whether it is to find drugs on an individual or to scan an entire building in a fraction of the amount of time that it would take bipedal officers.

“This is what happens when municipalities are looking at reducing spending,” said Sinagra of the town board’s original intent to remove the position in September. (A resolution that would have cut the position was tabled and never reconsidered.) “They need to look at everything that the department does. I think when it comes to public safety you have to be very cautious. Our town board is very frugal, but also very responsible. They realized that it didn’t behoove the community to eliminate the position.”

“As one of the members who would have voted to discontinue the K-9 position, I now hope that it is successful and provides the benefits to the community as promised,” said Town Councilman Paul Andreassen. “I have moved past this issue and hope that the board focuses more on infrastructure needs of the town and prioritizes them in a rational, cost-effective manner.”

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