ST. ALBANS — Kovu can track a scent for miles, sniff out drugs, bark intimidatingly and even bite on command.
He also can pull his own treats out of a certain Vermont State Police trooper’s desk drawer at the St. Albans barracks and, at random, reach over and lick you in the face.
Whatever he does, Kovu, a seven-year-old German Shepherd, is always with owner and VSP trooper Derek Rolandini. The two are always reading each other to gauge the situation.
“He’s a pretty laid back dog,” said Rolandini at the barracks as Kovu lay next to him, looking up. As soon as Rolandini unclipped the handcuffs from his belt, however, Kovu popped up and gave some enormous barks.
“Just like that,” said Rolandini, “he switches.”
As a K9 unit, Kovu and Rolandini are together for work and play. Kovu is a police dog and is intended as a weapon, but he’s also a pet that is groomed, receives treats, likes games and gets plenty of affection. The combination of the two creates a unique bond between dog and owner, one defined by loyalty.
“We just think of ourselves as a team at all times,” said Rolandini.
Becoming a unit
Rolandini has been a VSP trooper since 2002, but it wasn’t until 2009 that he got his chance to train as a K9 unit. He applied and was selected in April. In May, he met Kovu as a one-year-old.
While most troopers buy their own dogs for the job, Kovu was donated to the Vermont State Police Academy for a K9 candidate – in this case, Rolandini.
“I got lucky with him,” said Rolandini.
For the next seven months, the two trained together as a drug and patrol unit. Kovu learned obedience commands and how to track while Rolandini picked up methods of using his dog as a tool as well as protecting him. One thing they did together, for instance, is teach Kovu to listen only to Rolandini’s voice and commands.
“They’re sort of considered a weapon,” he said. “You don’t want them to listen to anyone except you.”
The two practice what they learn on a regular basis, and they also do 16 hours a month of formal training to keep things fresh.
On a recent Thursday, Rolandini used a burlap bite sleeve to get Kovu to practice that command. While the dog can look vicious, Rolandini said it’s all a game for him.
“You make it fun for them,” he said.
Another, lighter command is when Rolandini tells Kovu to find a treat in the barracks – the dog goes over to a fellow trooper’s drawer, opens it, takes one of the bones found inside, and chows down.
While they can be fun, interactions between dog and trooper also are based on obedience.
On that same Thursday, Kovu stood still while Rolandini tried on a bullet- and stab-resistant vest on the dog. Worth $950, the vest was donated by Vested Interest in K9’s, a Massachusetts non-profit that aims to protect law enforcement dogs.
“Everything we do is founded on obedience,” said Rolandini. “We want our dogs to focus on what we need them to do 100 percent of the time.”
Like many other dogs, Kovu will quickly sit on command – he also does this when he finds evidence.
As part of a slightly more complicated command, when Rolandini knelt down on one knee, mimicked holding a gun, and said “pocket,” Kovu quickly laid down under the trooper’s raised leg.
This command is for Rolandini to protect the dog and keep track of him while in a potentially dangerous situation.
“He’s pretty good at it,” said Rolandini.
A more challenging task is tracking through the woods – sometimes, said Rolandini, Kovu may accidentally end up on a deer trail. Other times though, Kovu is successful, and he receives his prize: food.
“At the end, he’s looking for his reward,” said Rolandini.
What works best with Kovu, said Rolandini, is consistency. Dog and owner need to be on the same wavelength to best respond to each other.
“A lot of it has to do with him reading me and I read him,” he said.
While this training and bonding requires a sacrifice from a barracks – they lose a trooper for seven months in addition to the time spent working with the dog each day – it can be a great advantage in the long run, and not just for police work.
“You get to interact with people you never would,” said Rolandini, adding that he’s met with groups of kids with Kovu as a way to educate them about law enforcement.
“Everybody likes a dog,” he added. “By having the K9, people want to approach you.”
When it comes to their main work, Kovu and Rolandini are the nighttime unit for the St. Albans barracks. A new unit recently came on for daytime hours, and this makes for a total of 19 K9 units for VSP.
Kovu and Rolandini have responded to 218 calls since Nov. 2009. These have included cases involving drugs, burglaries, robberies, missing people and fugitives.
According to Rolandini, “finds” are few and far in-between. But when they do happen five or six times a year, it’s extremely rewarding for dog, person and the barracks as a whole.
In one case on Nov. 18, 2012, their K9 unit responded to a high-speed motor vehicle violation on Route 118 in Berkshire. Following a 15-mile car chase at speeds reaching 90 mph, the two suspects in the car fled on foot in Belvidere.
Kovu and Rolandini were able to track down one of them – 37-year-old Raymond Earle of Wolcott – who had multiple active warrants out for his arrest.
They found Earle after a three-mile search through “arduous terrain.” The other man, who was 32-year-old Shane Phillips of Johnson, was not caught that day but also had active warrants for his arrest.
“If you get those, there’s nothing better,” said Rolandini.
A day with a dog
On most days, Kovu and Rolandini spend time patrolling. On a ride-along last week in a car that was impressively clean for the amount of dog inside, Kovu showed off his work attitude – alert, prone to barking, but a sweet dog underneath.
When Rolandini pulled over a truck going 16 mph over the speed limit on County Road, Kovu immediately began barking as his owner exited the car. When there’s not normally a reporter in the front seat, Rolandini said he rolls down the cruiser’s passenger side window to allow Kovu to jump out if Rolandini needs help.
It also is a fair amount of protection to the trooper when a massive, loud dog is barking out the window.
“He does his job protecting me and letting the whole world know he is there,” said Rolandini.
Once Rolandini was back in his vehicle to write out a warning to a speeding but honest driver, Kovu kept his eye on the truck for any unusual movement. His eyes didn’t leave the truck or his owner until Rolandini shut his blue lights off and drove away.
Relaxed, Kovu then unexpectedly licked this reporter on the face.
Outside of uneventful motor vehicle stops, more serious situations require decision making, said Rolandini. While he never puts Kovu in a dangerous circumstance if he can help it, there’s also the fact that Kovu is a working dog, and things happen.
“While we love them to death, we understand just like us, they’re put in the line of fire,” said Rolandini. “We try to do our best.”
The hope for Kovu, said Rolandini, is that he retires after a few more years and will live out his days in comfort. If he were to get injured, Rolandini could turn to Lacey’s Fund, a source of funds for vet bills set up Vermont Police Canine Association. In the past, the fund has covered operations of up to $6,000.
“It’s a great program,” said Rolandini. “Their motto is, if it can prolong the dog’s life and happiness, it’ll be funded.”
Rolandini hopes, however, to not have to use Lacey’s Fund and have Kovu stop working at a good time for both dog and barracks.
“My goal is to retire him before he has to be retired,” said Rolandini. “Kov[u] can enjoy his days chasing squirrels.”