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Bessie bides time in Norwich kennel while city leaders determine her fate

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published August 16. 2013 4:00AM
New London Police Department K-9 has been boarded offsite since June 3

New London - At the Norwichtown Pet Resort, Bessie, the New London Police Department tracking bloodhound, knows nothing of the political battle that has raged this summer over her status in the department that has owned her for the past five years.

Bessie, 6, has been boarded at the Norwichtown Pet Resort since June 3 after her longtime handler, Officer Kyle Gorra, left to join the Connecticut State Police.

Officer Anthony Nolan offered to be Bessie's handler, but he is allergic to dogs, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said. Finizio then planned to eliminate Bessie's position along with that of Buck, a German shepherd the mayor said would retire for health reasons.

A law enforcement agency in Florida wanted to take Bessie, but public outcry and the City Council intervened. The council passed an ordinance that called for four K-9 dogs. Finizio vetoed it Thursday and said he would support keeping two K-9 dogs.

Through all the back and forth, Bessie has waited at the kennel.

New London police now will post the K-9 tracking dog handler position internally for 14 days, Deputy Police Chief Peter Reichard said. If a successful candidate is found, the officer could start working with Bessie in mid-September, Reichard said.

Finizio adamantly rejected comments he's heard suggesting that Bessie has been "in jail" or has been caged these past two-plus months.

"The dog is doing just fine," Finizio said. "I don't think there is any question of lack of care. ... It's painful to me to be accused of being insensitive to this animal. Bessie is caught in the middle of this."

Reichard would not allow a Day reporter or photographer to visit Bessie at the kennel but gave permission to Norwichtown Pet Resort owner Carol Benesch-Ellis to explain her daily care and routine.

"She's a love," Benesch-Ellis said. "She's a lovable dog. She loves everybody."

New London police board K-9 dogs at the Norwichtown Pet Resort routinely when handlers go on vacation, officials said. The dogs have only minimal interaction with staff and no contact with the public. But Benesch-Ellis said Bessie's long-term boarding called for an exception. Three kennel staff give Bessie regular attention.

"Because she's so sweet and lovable, it's wicked easy to do," Benesch-Ellis said. "She looks at you, and you can't just walk by. You have to say 'hi' to her."

On nice days, Bessie spends hours outside in a 100-foot-by-100-foot grassy play yard. Staff visit with her there, but she does not interact with other dogs, Benesch-Ellis said.

Bessie receives more attention when she is inside in her kennel. On Thursday, she had the first bath of her stay.

New London police pay $22 per day and provide the food for Bessie's special diet. She cannot have toys or bedding, because she might chew them up. She sleeps on the concrete floor.

Bessie is getting no training and no rigorous exercise, which could affect how quickly she could return to duty, officers with knowledge of K-9 training said.

Reichard said the plan calls for the new handler to take Bessie home and have her in the cruiser to socialize with her before the two train together. After this acclimation period, a six-week formal training period would follow, with head K-9 training officer Todd Lynch working with the pair.

Lynch, who also is president of the New London police union, said he could not discuss Bessie's situation as the police K-9 trainer, only as union president. Lynch said he has visited Bessie a few times at the kennel.

He said he is concerned that inaction has cost the city more money in Bessie's boarding than it would have to keep her active with a new handler from the start. Her long layoff also could mean a longer training period when she does return.

"I don't really know what the dog would need for retraining," Lynch said. "If the guy decided to leave, all you would have to do is train the new handler. Now being gone several months, you would have to train both the dog and the handler together and you don't know what the animal's response will be. This is a city decision. Do you want to put that much time into training a 7-year-old dog, or a new dog?"

New London bought then 2-year-old Bessie for $1,500 from a West Virginia police department. She was fully trained as a human scent-tracking dog, Reichard said.

In January, Bessie tracked the scent of a man from his car to where he entered the Thames River near City Pier, before he committed suicide. Divers soon discovered his body, Reichard said. This spring, Bessie tracked a burglary suspect's trail at an auto parts store on Colman Avenue, Reichard said.

Ledyard Police Officer Dan Gagnon, vice president of the Eastern District of the Connecticut Police Work Dog Association, said dogs undergo weekly training in addition to their on-duty work.

"Anytime you put a dog up for that long without training, you're going to lose something," he said.

Physical conditioning also is critical. He called police dogs working athletes. You don't know when a bloodhound will be asked to track a scent for an extended distance or time when on a case. Handlers know their dogs and the type of exercise they need, whether it be a long walk or jog, a daily game of fetch or other activity.

"She will probably have some aches and pains at first," he said. "There will be a transition to get her back in shape."

c.bessette@theday.com

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