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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Blue: Workin' Like A Dog

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Williamstown search-and-tracking dog "Blue" was in a cruiser driver seat with her nose in gear and ready to work on Sept. 20.
Williamstown - Town police officers never doubted that the 2005 acquisition of "Blue," then a seven-month-old bloodhound puppy, would enhance their department's capabilities.

But no one knew just what a benefit the non-aggression search-and -tracking dog would be to all of the Northern Berkshires, or how frequently her services would be requested.

The past weekend offered significant evidence that "Blue" has become an asset to most local law enforcement agencies.

"A Resource We've All Grown Accustomed To"

During a 24-hour span that began on Sept. 17 and ended Sept. 18, Blue and her human "partner," police Officer Michael Ziemba, were asked to assist police four times in two communities. Ziemba and "Blue" traveled to North Adams three times on Sunday and then responded to a Clarksburg police department call for help during Monday's pre-dawn hours.

"I never comprehended, and I don't think anyone here did, the amount of use we would get out of her," Ziemba said. "She is a resource we've all grown accustomed to; when something comes up, it's 'call the dog.'"

Two of the North Adams calls involved missing person reports and both individuals eventually turned up on their own, Ziemba said.

The third call came after 22-year-old Glenn Williams led police on a high-speed motorcycle chase and then dumped the motorcycle near a West Main Street Subway sandwich shop. Williams ran off on foot; after detecting his scent from a discarded motorcycle helmet and lost shoe, Blue tracked Williams into a short railroad tunnel and police were able to arrest him.

Clarksburg police called for "Blue" after a report of a residential break-in.

"Blue" was able to follow a scent to a specific location; the investigation is on-going.

"She's been busy," Ziemba said during a Sept. 20 interview. "It's a hit or miss kind of thing. You go a few days without anything and then you get hit with a lot of calls."

A Dog's Life

For "Blue," brief call-to-duty respites don't always lead to chances to put her paws up and take it easy. Trainings are part of her "dog's life."

As a canine with local celebrity status, the two-year-old dog must spend time with those who are truly her adoring fans. Ziemba and "Blue" visit area schools, where students shower the dog with affection. "Blue" has been introduced to the town's elderly population and earned much praise from most senior citizens. She attends events such as a recent Cole Avenue block party, where children and adults have been known to actually clamor for a personal meeting with the dog.

"There is a lot expected of her," Ziemba said.

"Blue" was donated to the town police department thanks to a program operated by Robert Stevens of Douglas, Mass.. Stevens runs a dog breeding facility and he donates two dogs to law enforcement agencies on a yearly basis. The donation process includes a personal meeting with Stevens, who must give a thumbs-up to a proposed officer/dog partnership before a donation is finalized. Officers must agree to join a National Bloodhound Police Association.

Schooling dogs such as "Blue" for work as non-aggressive search and tracking dogs requires enormous commitment, as does agreeing to care for the dog. "Blue" shares a home with Ziemba and his wife, who is a veterinarian employed at the Greylock Animal Hospital.

Whether a search involves a missing child or a hunt for a potentially dangerous person suspected of involvement in a crime, Ziemba must document each call.

Documenting Dog Duty

Initially, he was keeping hand-written records in a notebook but recently, the department purchased software that is specifically designed to document canine calls.

The record-keeping is especially important during situations involving a person charged with a crime; Ziemba often must be prepared to provide details about those searches in a courtroom. The software can be used to create search diagrams that show routes, include topography information such as the location of trees, and is also capable of storing incident reports and search cost analysis.

Diagrams may be printed and distributed as hard copy documents. "Blue's" training sessions are also documented using the software, Ziemba said.

"It makes things so much easier, and it is so much better to bring this into court instead of a handwritten notebook," he said.

Ziemba is working to transcribe all his existing notebook documentation to the computer program, where the information will be stored and available at a keystroke.

It's Hand-y But Not Quite Dandy

Tracking a missing person not deemed dangerous can be a bit of a physical juggling act for Ziemba, especially if the track is occurring after dark.

"When I go on a track, I have the leash and a flashlight, if it's night, and I do have to try and keep my strong hand free for tactical purposes," he said. "I have to keep my eyes on the dog to see what she's doing, make sure that she's still tracking."

If a track involves a suspected criminal, things get trickier. In that circumstance, another officer must accompany Ziemba for safety reasons.

"Obviously, my hands are pretty busy," he said. "And I still have to keep an eye on the dog, even more so if we are going after someone who might be dangerous. Somebody has to come with me and act as a point man. I tell whoever it is 'don't watch the dog, watch out,' meaning watch what's happening out ahead of us. And we have to keep an eye around us, too, especially in the woods, where somebody could come out from behind trees."

"Blue" may be outfitted with a Kevlar vest that was donated to the department, and Ziemba also has a protective vest he wears when at work. There are specific hands-free dog harnesses that canine units can purchase, Ziemba said.

One type fits an officer in a figure 8 design and allows the dog to be attached to a device that sits just below the center of the harness. The harness is made to allow an officer to control the dog while also maintaining use of both hands.

There are no immediate plans to purchase such a harness but some grant options are being investigated.

"We try to do everything as cost-efficiently as possible," Ziemba said, and noted that the harness would be especially helpful locally because searches often occur along rough, wooded terrain that may also be steep and difficult to navigate even during daylight hours.

One Of The Guys, Part Of The Family

At the town police department office, "Blue" is recognized as "one of the guys," Ziemba said.

"She fits right in. We molded her personality, but she allowed us to mold it. Blue is doing great. I'm biased, obviously, but I think she's doing great. She's a very well-rounded dog."

And when at home, "Blue" is considered part of the family, Ziemba said.

"Blue" may have about seven additional years of "work span" before her retirement from police duties, Ziemba said.

"Bloodhounds have a life span of about 10 years," he said. "The working span is obviously less than that. There will come a time when she won't be able to track. A lot of it depends on how well she handles aging. I'd like to say that we can get another five to seven years from her."

"Blue" will have a home with Ziemba for as long as she lives, he said.

"I will keep her after she retires," he said. "She's one of the family. And believe me, around here [the police department office], she's a lot more than just a tool. A lot more. She's one of us."

Susan Bush may be reached at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.

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