By Michael Hartwell
WESTMINSTER -- About 65 police dogs followed their noses to Westminster this week for a special conference, accompanied by 100 officers from all over New England and New York.
The second annual K9 Conference held on Tuesday and Wednesday drew German shepherds, Belgian malinois, Dutch shepherds and one bloodhound to help police K-9 teams develop their skills.
State Police Sgt. Jerry Malet, one of the event organizers, said they were providing the tools and education to help K9 teams do their jobs safer and work well with others, such as providing techniques for dogs to work with SWAT teams.
Instructors came from New York, Colorado and Florida -- and two came from as far away as the Netherlands.
Europe uses single-purpose dogs, so canines that perform tracking duties are not the same ones that participate in police patrols used to take down suspects.
"Our dogs, they track, they go through the woods and they bite the bad guy at the end," said Greg Whelehan, owner and operator of Upstate K-9 in New York, a company that imports and sells dogs to law-enforcement agencies.
The two-day conference had classroom training inside the Wachusett Village Inn as well as tracking work out back. Aubuchon Hardware and the VFW donated the use of their property for tracking training.
Charlie Aubuchon, vice president of distribution center operations for Aubuchon Hardware, said they've been happy to allow police canine teams to use their headquarters for training exercises before.
"They needed a warehouse environment to search for drugs," he said. The headquarters has a lot of open space outside police were using this week.
Massachusetts Vest-a-Dog is the host organization for the event. They provide armored vests that can deflect bullet and knife attacks to police dogs, and sponsored the event with the help of grants from the Planet Dog Foundation and the Nutro dog food company.
Participants also received a canine first-aid kit designed and assembled by Massachusetts Vest-a-Dog Vice President Diane Whittaker. She built them with fabric tool bags packed with $200 of supplies each that are designed to be kept in a police vehicle.
Whittaker, who has been a veterinarian technician in Massachusetts since 1987 and works with police dogs on a regular basis, said the materials can be used to stop blood loss, provide padding for lacerations, stabilize fractures and even include a fold-out blanket for hypothermia.
"We had a dog go through the ice years ago," she said.
Kathy Hinds, president of Massachusetts Vest-a-Dog, said K9 officers are usually isolated in their departments and the event allows them to network.
She added sponsorship made it cheap to attend.
"A lot of the guys here come from small departments," said Sgt. James Bigelow of the Massachusetts State Police, who works in the western half of the state. He said conferences of this nature usually cost $400 and up to attend, but this one cost them a mere $75.
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