KENNEBUNK — Meet the newest member of the Kennebunk Police Department, K9 officer Otto, a 15-month-old German Shepherd who will be on the job in June after an intensive 14-week training regimen at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
Otto was chosen for qualities that will make him a good fit for the community of Kennebunk, according to Police Chief Bob MacKenzie.
“I had a list of what I was looking for in a dog. I wanted a community-oriented dog, one that doesn’t come off as being overly aggressive. One that we can bring to something like our annual National Night Out at Waterhouse (Center),” MacKenzie said. “Otto is going to be a great fit.”
Voters approved the cost of a specially equipped police cruiser for the K9 program in the budget last June, and funds from drug seizures were used to cover the $8,500 purchase cost of the dog and will also fund food and other supplies.
Otto will even have paramedics trained to care for him — two Kennebunk Fire Rescue paramedics recently took a canine trauma course and will be equipped to support him on the job.
MacKenzie said having a K9 unit will allow the department to enhance responses, improve partnerships and strengthen community relations.
“I feel this investment is worth it for the enhanced enforcement that we can do. People get very comfortable here, our violent crime rate is low, however, we have our moments. And we as police officers have to deal with those moments. If we are dealing with a dangerous subject, to have a dog there it plays a role in de-escalating the situation,” he said.
Officer Kaitlyn Sawyer, a five year veteran of the department, has been chosen to be Otto’s handler.
Sawyer knew she wanted to be a K9 handler after watching another handler, also a woman, do a demonstration for the kids attending Camp Postcard where Sawyer volunteers each summer. Camp POSTCARD (Police Officers Striving To Create And Reinforce Dreams) is a free week-long program for Maine kids.
“I remember watching her and thinking how impressive it was, the relationship she had with this dog. And then at the end she was able to just let the kids pet the dog and what got me was how excited the kids were. I was blown away with those connections,” Sawyer said.
There are only a handful of female K9 handlers across the state. MacKenzie said he has “all the faith in the world” in Sawyer, and only after she was chosen as the handler did he think about the fact that she was a woman in a male dominated specialty.
“I like that, it’s pretty neat," he said.
As a volunteer coach for the Kennebunk girls basketball team, Sawyer said she finds herself reminding the girls that they inspire her, and they are capable of being whatever they want to be.
"I was going through the K9 handler application process during basketball season and their hard work often motivated me to keep working towards achieving my goals. There were times I was mentally and physically exhausted from work, but I went to the gym anyway. Those sacrifices are important," Sawyer said.
K9 in training to serve
Otto was born Nov. 23, 2017 in Croatia. He comes from a lineage of working dogs and he is ready to get started.
Every bit still a puppy, Sawyer said when Otto is at home with her he’s a “giant goofball”, but he also knows he’s a working dog and loves it.
“Already he sees me putting on my uniform in the morning and he goes crazy until he’s in the cruiser. He loves the cruiser,” Sawyer said.
Her biggest challenge in the past few weeks has been to remind her fellow officers that Otto is not a pet, but a peer. She has to remind them to ignore him when he comes into the station, and resist the temptation to pat and play with him.
While they wait to start their training next week, Sawyer has been taking Otto around town, familiarizing him with his new “beat.” She said he’s taking it all in.
Sawyer and Deputy Chief Mike Nugent saw Otto when he was brought out at the canine showcase day in Augusta and they both noticed his poise and quiet confidence.
“He’s a thinker,” Sawyer said. “They brought him out, and he would just sit and think. I loved that about him. He’s very level-headed and laid back.”
Otto will be trained in patrol, search and rescue and tracking this spring. In the fall the pair will return to the police academy for another eight week training program in narcotics detection.
Another tool against opioids
Sawyer took a recovery coach training course last fall, which has given her tools to help someone or refer them to get help if they’re suffering from some sort of addiction. Being the handler for a narcotics trained K-9 gives her another tool to battle the drugs flowing into the state.
“I like the idea that this allows me with my recovery training to help someone and refer them if they’re suffering from some sort of addiction, but I also like the idea that I will be able to prosecute the traffickers," she said. "It’s a win win on both sides. Rehabilitate the people that needed it, but then prosecute the people who are bringing it here to begin with.”
Maine Police K-9 teams are certified under New England State Police Administrators Conference and Maine Criminal Justice Academy standards. They’re available 24 hours a day to respond to many types of calls and are available to assist other agencies in the state.
“The geographic location of Kennebunk, with the Route 1 corridor, the turnpike and the turnpike plaza along with Biddeford to the north and Sanford to the south, this is a hub where drugs are moving through, this gives us a another tool to work with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency on drug interdiction,” MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie said he could tell already that Otto is going to be a good fit in Kennebunk, and Sawyer agrees.
“It may sound strange to say this so soon, but I can tell he just belongs here,” MacKenzie said.
“With nearly six months of training, he will be ready to work. He’s going to be a great fit,” Sawyer said.