As I walk toward the police cruiser, I’m met with some serious barking and display of sharp, white teeth. I’m glad the windows have guards. Typically, dogs barring their teeth don’t scare me. This one gives me pause. She’s doing her job, just as she’s been trained. As the world emerges out of COVID hibernation, I’m taking advantage of a warm spring afternoon to catch up with the Essex Police Department’s top K9, Nova, and her handler, Cpl. Bryon Wehman.

Karen Nova.jpg

Karen Sturtevant with Essex Police K9 Officer Nova as a puppy.

The last time I was with Nova, she was more silly than substance. She was playfully biting her human dad’s arms, chasing insects and chewing on rocks. Her attention span was limited, but her brain was always on alert. Now, at almost a year old, Nova’s development is progressing nicely. She’s acting less like a clueless puppy and more liked a honed professional. As Officer Wehman opened the door to allow Nova out, I was amazed to see this stunning girl, no longer a little puppy, but all grown up. As we chatted, she looked on with interest and lunged at her leash at blowing leaves.

Nova’s heritage of Dutch Shepherd and high-energy Belgian Malinois creates major challenges for Officer Wehman. Her innate need is to be mentally and physically engaged. She’s a work-oriented breed. Nova doesn’t stay still for long. She’s a dog that needs action and exercise to be at her best. “Just you wait,” his coworkers warned him when he expressed interest in Nova.

Officer Wehman compared the well-meaning advice to having a child. “You think you know what you’re in for, think you’re prepared. She was a nightmare as a puppy. If it wasn’t glued down, it was in her mouth. If it was in her mouth it was gone.” A colleague sent him a meme reading Belgian Malinois are good at doing everything. Not good at doing nothing. Those words would prove to be true. With the confidence and approval of his department and commitment of Officer Wehman, Nova was chosen.

Allowing Nova to learn family and work dynamics were the most important goals for her first year. She was allowed to simply be a puppy. Formal schooling would begin soon enough.

Knowing how to correctly train this mentally-stimulated dog is key to her long-term success. “We don’t want to set her up for failure,” said Cpl. Wehman. Socializing, one of the key components to early healthy development, proved difficult in a time of shutdown due to the pandemic. Trips to locations where the public congregated were not an option. Cpl. Wehman relied on colleagues and close family to fill the void. Even Cpl. Wehman’s two-year-old daughter was recruited. She and Nova are the best of buddies, going on walks together while she holds the leash.

When the restrictions were loosened, socialization resumed. Some days they found themselves at Lowe's walking the aisles and eventually becoming the unofficial greeters at the entrance. Shoppers’ reactions to Nova were either walking past her giving a wide berth or hardcore softies, like me, who asked to pet her. She’s an intimidating sight to behold.

K9 Nova in training

Being a K9 in training is not easy. Besides Cpl. Wehman, her canine support network includes German Shepherd brothers, Nike and Rumble, human handlers and professionals from the Vermont Police Academy and the Vermont Police Canine Association. When Nova was mentally and physically ready, basic training began. As she matured, advanced techniques were added. Training sessions are done most days broken up into long and shorter bursts. Always keeping in mind that Nova needs enrichment, situations vary. Officer Wehman may set up a scenario where drugs are hidden in a car while the next location may be a warehouse keeping Nova’s interest piqued. Tracking on a dirt surface may be done during one session with tracking on pavement the next.

Basic foundation commands are reinforced regularly while bigger issues are saved for the time when mandated training hours are logged with a certified trainer. Vermont K9 handlers are required to have at least 16 hours each month of training in the presence of a certified instructor.

Although Nova’s exterior may look tough, her emotional reaction to both humans and other canines can be quite tender – a well-known attribute of Malinois. Officer Wehman explained: “They can shut down pretty easily. She can be super annoying to Nike and Rumble when she can’t turn her switch off.” They will let her know when enough is enough. Nova will become submissive, retreat and attempt to lay underneath them on her back as if to say, “I’m so sorry.” The pack hierarchy is being established; Nova is learning the rules of engagement.

Nova’s training regiment is specialized for her temperament and needs as an eager, intelligent young dog. It’s not unusual for Cpl. Wehman to arrive well before his shift to run Nova through scheduled paces after additional training at home. Fun activities like hiding bits of food around the department sharpen her skills and keep the day interesting.

When they are on the road, Nova enjoys her space in the back of the custom police cruiser. At the time of our visit, a few additions still needed to be installed including a door opener plus a heat and alarm system. With the press of a button on his belt, Officer Wehman will be able to roll down the windows and open the door allowing Nova to exit the vehicle.

Officer Wehman is cognizant in trying to keep Nova’s working time fun. With frequent stops for ball fetching or rope tugging, Nova is associating work with reward. As keen as she is to please her handler, dogs also yearn for outside reward. In Nova’s case, some days she prefers playing with a toy, other days it’s food. After putting Nova back in the vehicle, Officer Wehman opened the back to show me his latest and greatest currency for Nova: a Lotus ball. This treat-dispensing, pull-apart toy is recommended for food-motivated dogs during training. With this specific gift, Nova gets both her favorites: toy and food. This gold standard only comes out on occasion. A favorite today, tomorrow it will most likely be something else.

When training sessions don’t go as expected, Nova will often feel this uneasiness from her handler. “She knows when I’m frustrated with her, or in general. Malinois are hard to work with in the beginning. They’re super sensitive, super touchy, way over the top in emotions. She can shut down pretty easily.” Knowing where that line is between encouraging her further or deciding to attempt again at another time is critical.

EPD Nova with Corporal Wehman

Essex Police's Corporal Wehman poses with K9 Officer Nova as a puppy.

Over the winter, the Vermont Police Academy hosted Nova along with other K9 teams for a demanding four-week class in narcotics detection. She excelled earning her certification, which needs to be renewed yearly. This summer, they will be actively participating in patrol school, a 16-week program designed to teach tracking, building searches and protection work. Nova’s gaining confidence with every training session while her hardworking tendencies are apparent. She’ll need these traits and the direction of Officer Wehman to perform in this next round of learning.

Police dogs need to be steadfast. “Environmentally, she is the most sound dog I’ve ever seen.” Nova is not rattled by loud noises or cars speeding by when she’s on the side of the road. She doesn’t try and hide or retreat, but looks to her handler for direction. During a recent training exercise, the team was asked to ascend and then descend an open metal spiral staircase. While Officer Wehman was a bit apprehensive, Nova proved to be a fearless warrior. This dog doesn’t shy away. She does what’s asked of her with great enthusiasm and agility.

Remembering the fact that Nova is still technically a puppy had me laughing at her latest conquest. When Officer Wehman was on a call, Nova was left in the vehicle with an installed window fan. Upon return the officer noticed some type of debris on the ground. On further examination, he determined it was chewed wires from the fan. “She ruined it,” he says with a good-hearted chuckle. Fortunately, she only chewed, not swallowed any of the components.

Looking ahead

We talked about goals for the team. “Her potential is off the charts. When she is committed to working, and most days she wants to work, she absolutely nails it. If we haven’t touched it [training practice] for a long time and I want to see where we are with it, she will blow my mind. I couldn’t ask for a better training session than what we just experienced.

“It’s on me to make sure I’m reading her. She’s super subtle with her cues.” In searching for narcotics when trained dogs are following the scent, they are said to be ‘in odor.’ That body language can be overt or obscure. In Nova’s case, the tip of her tail will waive ever so slightly while her body posture changes. That detailed behavior changed took Officer Wehman sometime to discover. Nova was communicating in her language, her handler is now interpreting it correctly – another tool for success.

From basic to complicated, the amount of resources Cpl. Wehman has, are in his words, “1,000 percent.” Making a phone call at 1 a.m. to a senior handler is commonplace. Texting with a group of other handlers is a daily occurrence. Working as a collective team, situations are shared, possible solutions offered.

Toward the end of our chat, Nova did allow me to rub her belly, but not without first chasing and catching a blowing leaf – she’s still partial to her puppy mentality. An impressive figure with her elegant natural beauty, this pup with a purpose is on her way to do important tasks. With patrol school quickly approaching, not only will her body be worked, but that beautiful, inquisitive mind as well. Cpl. Wehman has his hands full with Nova and her budding potential. He’s ready for the next challenge and the next.

Nova has made great strides in her short time as a police K9. Her support team is proud of her accomplishments and looking forward to helping her take her next professional steps. She’s loved, understood and living in the best of both worlds of home and work. The future holds great possibilities for this talented canine. Aren’t we fortunate that we can share in her achievements and cheer her on?

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