K-9 Duke greets students in Williston

Published: Sep. 25, 2020 at 6:31 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 25, 2020 at 7:38 AM EDT
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WILLISTON, Vt. (WCAX) - K-9 Duke has had quite the fanfare leading up to his debut in the Williston community, but before he is officially sworn in and certified as a therapy animal, he has to train.

At 6 months old, K-9 Duke has already made a positive impact in the Williston community and while he learns and grows, police say they plan to use him in any way they can.

“Duke isn’t even full grown yet so he still has that magical puppy magnetism going for him,” said Greg Marino, lead principal for the Williston schools.

Duke spends mornings during his week greeting students at the Williston Central School. Once students pass through the health screening, he’s there to make sure students start the day off on a high note.

“For some kids, that is the one thing that where you see their eyes change or that you see their body open up," said Marino.

Considering Duke isn’t bashful, Ofc. Matthew Cohen says he enjoys his first official duties. But it is all part of the training process, too.

“Kids are great with training dogs because oftentimes kids may do something that is unexpected and it teaches Duke not to react to the unexpected. It helps build his confidence when going out in public and interacting with public," said Cohen.

Police say he is a calming presence wherever he goes and has already created a relationship with students.

Cohen says Duke has been training regularly, but he can’t be certified as a therapy dog until he is one. In the meantime, the best way to learn is to practice.

“During that time we’ve been training, we have been out in the public, and we’ve actually still been responding to emergency calls as well as doing community outreach while he’s still in training," said Cohen.

His handler says having him on the force has already taught him a lot about what a therapy animal can offer.

“Some of the benefits of having a therapy dog and a therapy dog program is people are more willing to open up and talk to both law enforcement and or whoever. The dogs help people, especially children, you know make a connection and make that rapport that might not have happened. You know, kids that might have just walked by me when I say good morning to them now stop and say hello, and we have a minute or two conversation with them," Cohen said.

It’s the open line of communication that Duke can facilitate that helps foster a healthy relationship between Williston Police and the community.

And although he’s still a puppy and working on focusing more on the people, Principal Marino says he’s always a welcomed sight.

“It’s just one more thing that’s familiar and that’s positive that they associate with community police, with our school and with their lives and an important relationship in their lives," said Marino.

In the future, Williston schools are looking forward to using Duke as a therapy animal in the school, whether it be with a single student who has experienced trauma as a part of their schedule or to join in on the occasional class on community.

And Marino is excited to have Duke play a role in their school community, along with their other on-staff therapy dogs.

Ofc. Cohen says the goal is to have Duke certified as a therapy animal officially after he turns 1. Duke will be responding to all crisis situations he can and will be critical in situations involving mental health.

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