K-9 takes New Richmond by 'Storm'
If you've been following the story of the New Richmond Police Department's quest to acquire a K-9 team, you already know it has been several years in the making; the quest has been adopted by hundreds of residents and businesses alike. Well New Richmond, the wait is over, Storm has arrived!
How New Richmond's newest law enforcement officer received her name is as indicative as any story exemplifying how the community has invested its cash and compassion in this two-year old Belgian Malinois. New Richmond Police Chief Craig Yehlik along with Lt. Veronica Koehler and the K-9 Committee asked area fourth graders to come up with a name for the newest crime fighter.
"We showed pictures of Storm to the fourth grade students at all of the elementary schools including St. Mary's. Then they all voted and the name Storm won. She is named after one of the X-Men characters, Storm, a female superhero. From what we've seen, it seems to fit Storm's personality perfectly. I know the fourth graders are very excited to meet Storm," said Yehlik.
According to Yehlik, the primary reasons for adding a K-9 team were to aid in narcotics arrests and investigations, to help track disabled individuals who might have wandered off and to be part of the public face of the department.
"It wasn't any one thing that led up to the decision to acquire a K-9. The city of New Richmond will be able to use that K-9 capability with our drug enforcement down the road. And with more people, autistic children, adults with dementia and elderly folks becoming a part of project Life Saver, we'll be needing more help finding and returning those folks back home safely," said Yehlik.
Once the City Council approved the addition of a K-9 team, Yehlik needed to find the right fit, an officer with the right stuff to take on the commitment and responsibility that would come with the new role.
"We needed somebody who had the mental fortitude to do this for an extended period of time and had the passion and the commitment to take on this responsibility. Officer Katie Chevrier quickly rose to the top with her history of dog handling experience and level of physical fitness and mental commitment to the job. Katie brought all those things to the table. We were very fortunate to have Katie," said Yehlik.
The K-9 story has been out of the headlines for a number of months with good reason. As with all lasting relationships, getting off to a good start and building a solid foundation is the key to success. The same was true for Katie and Storm. Yehlik wanted to give them every chance to succeed so the department deliberately maintained '"radio silence" during the initial bonding period and the 12-week training session, until they were sure the new team was ready to assume their new duties and step into the public spotlight.
Even though NRPD and St. Paul Police K-9 Program instructors collaborated in creating profiles for both handler and K-9 to make the best match, meeting Storm for the first time was like meeting a first date. Would there be chemistry?
The superhero Storm has been described as strong, confident, intelligent, caring, loyal and brave.
"Ever since I knew I wanted to be in law enforcement, I knew I wanted to be a K-9 officer. They matched me with Storm based on department needs and what we were looking for. (St. Paul Officer) Jason Brodt picked out Storm knowing that she would be a good fit for the community and a good fit with me, and not necessarily because she was a female. Right away, she was very friendly and loving. She wanted to cuddle and play all the time. We had a good bond from the start," said Chevrier.
By the time Chevrier met Storm, the Belgian Malinois, delivered from the Netherlands, was 2 years old and full grown at about 50 pounds. It was made clear at the first encounter that strict rules applied. For two months there would be no formal training so that Chevrier and Storm could concentrate on forming a solid bond. After the bonding period, 12 weeks of strenuous training would begin in earnest.
"When we first got Storm, there were a lot of rules and stipulations I had to follow. With her having come from overseas, she had a lot of adjusting to do. She was on a strict diet and we had to make sure we did specific exercises, but the most important part was the bonding. The orders were, 'make sure you are with this dog bonding.' Before training started, that was the biggest thing, to make sure that we established a good bond so we'd work well together," said Chevrier.
Yehlik recalled the warning from Brodt before they walked out the door with Storm.
"The dog has to come back in the exact same mental and physical condition as when it walks out today. It should know nothing when it comes back for training. It should weigh the same and it should have the same attitude. We'll know if you have been working with your dog," he said. " You don't do anything with this dog unless we specifically tell you to do something with the dog. Don't jump the gun and train it to sit."
Over the course of the next 12 weeks, Katie and Storm commuted five days a week to St. Paul. Their bond would be put to the test repeatedly as they embarked on one of the toughest, most awarded K-9 training programs in the country, conducted by the St. Paul Police Department Canine Unit. The program is pass or fail. If Katie and Storm were meant to be, the hardships and tests ahead would only strengthen their bond, forging a first class professional K-9 team built on an unshakable trust between handler and K-9.
"In the training program that Katie went through, we were told as administrators, when they started the training, it's usually the handler that washes out, not the dog," said Yehlik.
"At the beginning, going from bonding with her at home to now being out in the field with 20 other dogs and trying to maintain that same bond and focus was hard. It was nerve-racking for me and her not knowing what to expect, or what was going on especially with all 20 dogs there. It was a very overwhelming feeling at first," said Chevrier.
Chevrier also stood alone as the only woman handler in her class. Everyone was motivated to do well, not just the handlers, the dogs too. It was a competitive environment full of high IQ, high energy dogs. Motivated properly, they wanted to succeed just as badly as their handlers.
"St. Paul was very professional. It was a good experience. They had their program, their curriculum, and they kept telling us to trust the program, trust the system. If you're not where you want to be, don't compare yourself to somebody else. Just because that dog is already heeling and your dog is just learning to lay down, don't compare dogs, trust us, trust the system and we'll get you through. I had to keep thinking that all the way through, trust them, trust the system, it's going to work, we'll get there and we'll make it," said Chevrier.
Chevrier and Storm had to find ways to persevere. They had to figure out how to communicate. Chevrier had to understand how Storm learned, what motivated her and what distracted her.
"I never had a question or a doubt in my mind, but there were times when I would talk to the lead trainers and they would say, 'You're doing fine, just trust the system.' It was a lot of mental work to piece together the training that we're trying to do while figuring out how to teach your dog. Every dog learns differently, so some things your dog can learn easily and other things are more difficult," said Chevrier.
Anyone who has ever trained a dog knows what comes next. Chevrier had to learn to keep her emotions in check. Expectations were very high. Both are learning complex skills under pressure and a handler's frustration can travel down the leash and impede their dog's progress.
"There were times when she didn't want to do something and I had to realize, well she is a dog, we just have to figure out how to get through it. I had to mask my emotions as best I could because as they say, whatever you're feeling feeds down the leash into the dog. The dog can tell how you are feeling," said Chevrier.
Her training encompassed not just handling skills but also support skills including acting as a decoy.
"I had to take the same amounts of bites during training as the guys. Getting a bite from a bigger dog (80-90 pounds) was interesting especially with me being of smaller stature," said Chevrier.
Eventually it came around and the training began to work. Both Chevrier and Storm began to experience success.
"As things progressed and thinking back to where we were week one to where we are now, it's obviously a huge difference. Back there where she wouldn't even sit, now look where we're at. As things went, it was definitely gratifying," said Chevrier.
"There are a lot of reasons why the dog or the handler don't make it (through training). The fact that Katie made it through on her first attempt, with her first dog, speaks volumes about her and Storm. At the end of training, they have to be able to do all the different things that patrol dogs have to do and do it well. Until the training was complete, certificate in hand and we were comfortable that the dog could go out on patrol, we laid low. Now we have the dog, it's on patrol, Katie and Storm both passed, now we feel comfortable taking this public. We're as excited as everybody else in the community," said Yehlik.
Their first day of active duty was Tuesday, May 29.
In addition to all the new faces, Storm is also learning a completely new community and that can be stressful. As they can handle more work, more public appearances will be scheduled. It will not be an immediate 100 percent full throttle approach. Right now, Storm is a patrol dog. She can do searches, article searches, track, and public appearances. She will attempt to become drug certified later this fall.
A new K-9 member on the force also means additional training for other members of the department. Chevrier's fellow officers will need to learn how to interact with Storm in various scenarios.
"Katie is our resident trainer and she's teaching our patrol officers how to react. If there's going to be a track of a person or there's an article that needs to be found, somebody threw some evidence in a field or something like that, just knowing how to secure that scene and not mess up the scent for the dog. So there is a learning curve for our department. There will also be requests to do public appearances. Katie still needs a decoy from within our department to learn how to take that bite and help with other training activities. So it's still a phasing in process on our end," said Yehlik.
In the very real and dangerous world of illegal narcotics and tracking criminals armed with weapons, making the correct decision relies on trust that is earned up and down the chain of command, the same trust that is essential between a handler and their K-9. Chevrier is responsible for two lives every time she and Storm respond to a call. Yehlik must trust her to make that decision.
"If I didn't trust Katie fully, she would not be in that position. I trust her judgment. She's proven that time and time again over the last five years. Katie has been tasked with making big decisions. She's the K-9 handler. She knows what her dog's capabilities are. She obviously knows the rules and the laws. If she's not 100 percent comfortable in sending her dog into a situation, if she hasn't got all the information that she needs for that situation, it's up to her to get that information before she makes that decision. But what we have to keep in mind is that Storm's primary purpose is to keep us safe. Storm is a tool to ensure our police officers go home at the end of the day. The K-9 program is public safety driven. This is one more thing to keep us all safe," said Yehlik.
When it comes to Chevrier's and Storm's schedule, the chief employed one of his favorite phrases.
"Our goal is to be predictably unpredictable. We only have one dog and we don't want people to think the dog is out there Monday through Friday 8 a.m. — 4:30 p.m. because that wouldn't make any sense. We have developed a program that we think benefits the community and benefits the dog and the handler. We realize there has to be some consistency for them to have some degree of normalcy in their lives as well. The schools aren't going to know when we are going to show up, people aren't going to know when she is scheduled to patrol. We're not trying to be secretive, visibility is a huge part of it, but we'd like people to think that the dog is here 24/7," said Yehlik.
So far, so good
"I couldn't be happier. Katie did her first demo at the Park Art Fair which went well. So we're going to start scheduling some more of those opportunities into our activities. The public relations since the beginning of this has been unbelievable. I think there are people in the City of New Richmond who know our police officers by first name because of Storm even before Storm got here. That's a win win. We want the people in New Richmond to know our police officers before they need to know our police officers. I think Storm is going to be a tremendous tool in that endeavor," said Yehlik.
Yehlik added, "A special shout out has to go to LT. Koehler and the K-9 Committee, without them, we wouldn't be sitting here telling this story today."
The K-9 program continues to be funded solely by donations from the public. Going forward, expenses like food, veterinary care and training equipment will need to be paid for. To stay involved in the story of Chevrierand Storm, drop your donations off at the police station or donate online at the New Richmond Area Community Foundation (" target="_blank">nracfoundation.com/make-a-gift/).