Corporal Bryon Wehman has a busy life. When he’s not donning his spiffy Essex Police Department (EPD) uniform, he’s enjoying time with his family, two German Shepherds and a wondering cat. The Colchester resident and three-year veteran of the EPD already has a full plate, but that hasn’t stopped him from heaping on a second helping of responsibilities.
I arranged to meet Corporal Wehman to talk about his latest, long-term assignment. After identifying myself and the reason for my visit through the intercom, I was buzzed in to the waiting room where the walls are adored with accommodations, photos and patches from by-gone policing eras. As I glanced through the interior windows observing the surrounding areas, my eyes focused in on the reason for my visit: four little legs trotting through an adjacent room.
Whenever I see a canine, my heart speeds up and my excitement screams to be set free. However, as I was here on a professional level, I did my best to keep my inner child on her finest behavior. With both of us wearing face masks, thanks to covid, Corporal Wehman introduced me to Nova, the most popular and furriest member of the force. Nova is a Dutch Shepherd/Belgian Malinois puppy destined to be top K9 in the Essex Police Department.
Outside, while keeping our social distance, we chatted about Nova, a name decided upon by the Wehman family, and her future. This alert little firecracker made her independence obvious as she explored, sniffed and chewed anything she could find and fit in her mouth. The EPD recently retired their K9, Wes, creating an opportunity for one hardworking pup.
Nova was specifically selected by a California breeder who was familiar with Corporal Wehman’s household dynamics, the puppy’s future responsibilities, and the training programs available. Police dogs need to meet specific criteria; Nova was the chosen and gifted to the department by Corporal Wehman’s father.
Being a mere pup, Nova is not yet privy to her future obligations. She was happy to chomp on sticks and shirt sleeves during our visit. “Right now we are allowing her to just be a puppy. Getting her used to her new environment, my home, here at the department, inside a cruiser, inside a car. There’s not a lot of pressure on her right now, there can’t be,” said Corporal Wehman.
Police canines, Nova included, typically live with their handlers. This police-pup-in-training is learning what her new home life is like with German Shepherd brothers, Nike and Rumble. She watches and learns. “The dogs are like this is what we do when we go outside where Nova’s young enough where she wants to play at three o’clock in the morning. I lean on the other dogs in the household to teach her. They will help out more than I could actually do myself.”
The serious work starts in February 2021 when Nova will begin six weeks of drug detection training at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford. After she masters this discipline, she will be trained and then certified in patrol and tracking––a twelve-week course. When her instruction is complete, she will be considered a dual purpose police canine. Not only will she gain initial skills, but her endurance and advanced training will be ongoing throughout her career. Nova’s final skill set will include finding drugs, locating missing people, discovering crime scene evidence and patrolling. Recertification in each area of expertise is required yearly. “She will be the Essex Police Department’s dog. I will be her handler from the EPD, but if another agency in or around Chittenden County needs a dog and they call us, we will respond,” said Wehman.
Community reaction has been overwhelmingly positive with Pet Food Warehouse and River Cove Animal Hospital donating supplies and discounting services. Belgian Malinois are known for their drive and focus. With their sharp minds, learning comes easily as they are poised to please their owners.
“Malinois are go go go go / sleep / go go go / sleep. Dutch Shepherds have a little bit of an off switch, which I get to see a little bit in her, which is nice. She can be really sweet when she wants to be, she’ll cuddle in my lap, and then the Malinois comes out and the switch will go on and she’ll go, go, go again. This combination has been proven to make an amazing working dog,” said Corporal Wehman.
One glance at the officer’s scratched and love-bitten arms and hands is testament to the go go go instinct in Nova. Harnessing this innate drive will be critical as she matures. Training at the Vermont Police Academy and membership in the Vermont Police Canine Association (VPCA) ensure continuous behavioral, emotional and training support for both K9 and handler. A long term goal for Wehman is for he and Nova to be honored by the VPCA with the distinction of Vermont Police K9 Team of the Year. Nova has a lot to learn.
“Malinois are a little different,” Corporal Wehman comments. “She has her moments, right now she’s chewing on a rock, last night she was chasing an ant. The other night she was pulling the car seat across the driveway.” Allowed and encouraged to be a clumsy, silly puppy is essential to Nova’s development. “We’ll start getting her out from the EPD and out to other departments so she’ll be used to being around other officers.”
Until Wehman’s police cruiser is completely outfitted to accommodate Nova, she rides on the passenger seat. “Right now, she’ll walk on buttons and hit the sirens.” The completion is close for the K9-friendly cruiser––much to the delight of the unsuspecting motorists who are within the path of the mistaken sirens and blue lights!
Corporal Wehman is committed to setting up Nova for success. Bonding with one another is key, and by the results of their so-far interactions, they are ahead of schedule. Nova’s a spunky spirit with an obvious affection for her human dad. Her current days are filled with socializing and play; very soon she’ll be focusing her attention on obedience and intense learning. Corporal Wehman hopes that Nova will be well known within the community and dependable when she’s asked to perform her trained tasks. With her nature, she’s destined to be a superstar.
As we were concluding our conversation while walking to my car, Nova happily followed, chewing on her handler’s pant leg––a common occurrence right now. Meeting Nova and seeing her personality shine was an absolute pleasure. Watching her evolve into a practiced and honed police dog will be equally as satisfying. She has a long road of intense education before her. She’s also got the advantage of having a strong team of professionals who will help her with each step. With Nova’s strong attitude and foundation of support, this pup with a purpose will be earning her badge and stripes in record time.