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East Lyme - As the sunbathers, swimmers, picnickers and campers kept Rocky Neck State Park busy for the Labor Day holiday Monday, Officer Karen Reilly's rounds took her to the crabbing bridge that overlooks Bride Brook marsh, her energetic, tail-wagging assistant Hunter in tow.
"How are you guys doing?" asked Reilly, one the state's 48 environmental conservation officers and one of four with a K9 assistant, a program new this summer. "This is Hunter."
Instantly, four young girls on the bridge with their fathers huddled around the furry golden ambassador, eager to stroke and admire him.
"I have a friend named Hunter," said one of the girls, Alyssa Luczla of Vernon.
"You do?" responded Reilly, whose patrol duties include Hammonasset Beach in Madison, the state's busiest. "He finds missing people in the woods."
Reilly had walked onto the crabbing bridge with Hunter as part of the goodwill public outreach mission she and the three other DEEP K9 officers perform, as well as to check that all the crabs being caught were of legal size. The girls and their fathers hadn't been on the bridge long enough to catch any crabs, but there were two men with crabbing gear far out onto the marsh, well past the signs forbidding such passage.
"Are you guys measuring the crabs?" Reilly asked, after the two men crossed the marsh back to the bridge. "They've got to be five inches."
As she grabbed the bucket full of crabs from them, Reilly dropped Hunter's leash and lowered her black boot over it to keep it secure while she checked the catch. Of the 17 crabs in the bucket, only two were of legal size.
The two men, A Du and Pu Lu, both of Hartford, said they didn't know about the size restrictions. After throwing their catch back, Reilly issued both a summons to appear in court or pay a $100 fine. She also warned them to obey the signs about staying off the marsh.
"Make sure you measure them next time," she said, handing Du back his bucket.
Turning back to her vehicle, she opened the back door and lifted the 40-pound Hunter, a 1½-year-old yellow lab mix, back into his crate in the back seat for the short ride to the parking lot near the beach. When she let him out again, he leaped twice into the air, then the two set off along a row of picnic tables toward the beach, the smells of hot dogs and chicken cooking wafting into the air from open charcoal fires.
"How are you guys doing?" Reilly asked one group of men in folding chairs around a grill.
"We're cooking Portuguese sardines and Portuguese bacon," responded one, spatula in hand, as another leaned over to pet Hunter.
Staying focused with all the food smells at picnic sites and beach blankets, Reilly said, is one of Hunter's biggest challenges. The attention so freely lavished on him is another.
"I like to take him into the campgrounds, just to get used to the smells," she said. "My biggest struggle is when I'm looking for a missing child, and everyone wants to come up to him and say 'hi' and run up and pet him. It's not good for him to get distracted when he's working."
Between responding to calls, though, Reilly and Hunter do routine patrols that are as much about socializing and educating the public as they are about making sure visitors are obeying the rules.
"We have a lot of people who come into the state parks and think it's a free-for-all," she said. "Sometimes we have high school kids come in and camp here and have underage drinking parties. We try to get them out of here before nightfall, get them a safe ride home."
Having Hunter, she said, has helped diffuse some tense situations, like when groups on neighboring blankets start fighting when someone starts blowing cigarette smoke. Their kids start petting Hunter when she approaches, and suddenly the adults calm down.
Hunter has also helped sooth a few children crying after a fall, providing a welcome distraction as first aid crews tend to their wounds.
On the beach at Rocky Neck, Reilly and Hunter zigzagged between blankets, chairs, umbrellas and coolers, stopping to answer questions, let admirers pet Hunter and hear one woman's story about how her young son was found by a police bloodhound after being missing for 2½ hours.
"Can we pet him?" asked one boy, swinging a chicken drumstick on a string as he approached Hunter on his way to another crabbing bridge at the park.
"Yes, but watch that chicken, he'll take that from you," Reilly warned.
Hunter is well trained and well behaved for his age, Reilly said, but he's still a young dog and does have a mischievous side. Once, she recalled, her badge went missing and she found it buried in the bottom of Hunter's food bowl, underneath a pile of kibbles.
Reilly became an EnCon officer six years ago, and eagerly volunteered to be trained to become one of the new K9 officers when the new program was announced.
"I was very happy," she said. "I grew up around dogs, and I thought this would be the greatest job in the world. It's so rewarding when we go on a search-and-rescue and we find someone. The bond is amazing."
Earlier this summer, Reilly took a two-day vacation and boarded Hunter in a kennel, the first time the two had been apart since she got him as a puppy. When she returned, Hunter was so sick with diarrhea she took him to the veterinarian. The diagnosis: Hunter had separation anxiety.
"He's with me all the time," Reilly said.
The four dogs being used by DEEP have all been trained to find evidence and for search-and-rescue, critical tools for helping find children separated from their parents on crowded beaches, or hikers lost in the woods.
This summer has taken Reilly and Hunter on missions in state parks and forests to find someone contemplating suicide, teenagers smoking marijuana, and a car thief. In all three cases, Hunter followed scents picked up from the parked cars the subjects came in.
In the future, Hunter and the other EnCon dogs will be trained in body and narcotics searches, two skills Reilly believes will prove invaluable when responding to drownings and drug activity on state park lands.
"We'll be able to work with the Coast Guard on homeland security checks," she said. "In the off season, we get a lot of people meeting at the parks to do their narcotics exchanges. It'll be a great tool for us."