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Bow police dog to enter new chapter: retirement

The Bow Police Department is about to lose one of its finest to retirement. The officer, originally from Hungary, has served the squad for the past eight years, playing what co-workers describe as a vital role in search-and-rescue missions, criminal apprehensions and countless drug busts. He stands about 3 feet tall, has dark fur and regularly struts about with a big, wet, goofy grin plastered on his face.

His name is Osci (“Oh-shee”), and, chances are, he wants to play.

“Everything the dog does, in his mind, it’s a game,” said Sgt. Art Merrigan, who constitutes the human half of what has become known as one tight-knit and well-oiled K-9 unit. “His tail, it’s wagging all the time.”

That playfulness was on display yesterday, in a wooded patch near the Bow precinct, while Osci, muzzle to the ground, rifled through brush for something that had his nose aquiver. As the sun beat down, he zigzagged through the field, stopping here and there – to pee, to sniff a pile of something another critter left behind – before coming upon his prize: a cell phone.

This was a training scenario, but it easily could have been real – the cell phone or a bag of drugs or a blood-soaked knife or a missing child.

Searching for people, uncovering objects and relentlessly defending his partner – this is the life Osci has known for nearly a decade. And, at the ripe old age of 9, it’s what he is about to leave it behind. As with most police dogs
at this age, the department has decided that it’s time Osci put up his harness and live
out his golden years with
style. His last days on the job are scheduled for the end of June.

“A lot of it is the fact that, physically, (the dogs) can’t meet the demands anymore,” Merrigan said. “They start to slow down. (Osci) doesn’t cover 50 yards as quickly as he used to.”

This may be news to
some, not the least of whom is Osci.

“It’s hard for these dogs to retire,” Merrigan said. “They don’t always understand. So, as we approach the date, some days I bring him in, some days I leave him at home. Some days I go home and bring him back, or I’ll bring him in and take him home midway through the day. Just so the expectation isn’t there that every day (he’s) going to get out and go to work.

“It’s going to be an adjustment,” he added, “on both our parts.”

Establishing a bond

Osci, whose name means “little brother” in Hungarian, isn’t the first dog to work for the department, though his introduction to it eight years ago followed several in which the department had no K-9 unit.

But in 2005, Merrigan, who had previously worked with police dogs as an officer in Canterbury, offered to start a new unit. Working with a breeder in Budapest, the department purchased Osci, and he and Merrigan began training together.

The first step was establishing a bond. Merrigan brought Osci back to his house – where he has lived ever since – and for the first three weeks simply fed him, played with him and showed him around the area. He took him for walks near the train tracks, on pavement, in the woods and other settings.

“You want to expose (the dogs) to as many different things as you can,” Merrigan said.

Osci was easygoing from the beginning, Merrigan
said, and the two bonded quickly. After about three weeks, the two traveled to Pennsylvania to take part in an intensive four-week training session. They spent more than 250 hours together,
Osci learning to track, defend and interact with people,
Merrigan honing his commands and understanding of the dog.

Merrigan said only one out of every 40 dogs who are bred to work for the force actually passes the necessary requirements to do so. Which means those that do “are exceptional animals,” he said.

Over the years, Osci has done a copious amount of police work, but, for Merrigan, one of his greatest achievements came during his first outing: a search for two missing girls who had been spotted walking along Route 3A.

“It’s that first time you put into work all that practice,” he said. “The first time after you get out of school and take him on a track and he finds somebody – that’s when you know he’s working now, that the training has paid off.”

A job and a lifestyle

Manning a K-9 unit is time consuming because it’s both a job and a lifestyle. The dog lives with you, vacations when you vacation, takes a sick day when you take a sick day. Merrigan estimates that he’s spent more time with Osci in the past eight years than he has with his wife, kids or grandchildren.

“Having that dog dictates a lot of what you do in your own personal life, because you’re responsible for him all the time,” he said. “It’s sometimes eye-opening for people considering specializing in this
work. You have to remind them that it’s a long-term assignment – eight to 10 years, depending on the dog’s age when he starts. That’s a huge chunk of time, so going in you really have to have that kind
of commitment, and, depending on your situation, your family’s commitment as well.”

Personal trips can prove a challenge. “In the eight years that we’ve had (Osci), I really haven’t gone away for more than four or five days at most,” Merrigan said. “He doesn’t do well if I put him in a kennel. I put him in one once. I dropped him off on Saturday and picked him up on Tuesday, and he pretty much destroyed everything they had put in there because he wanted to get out.”

Training never ends. Merrigan works with Osci every day, using positive reinforcement to have him locate items, exercise and obey commands. “Everything I do with this dog is reward-based,” he said. “Years ago, compulsion was used because at the time they thought that worked best. But all you ended up with were dogs doing things out of fear, and that’s not good.”

And, as with anyone, Osci has his moody days. “There are days I take him out for training and he wants nothing to do with it,” Merrigan said. “They don’t happen often, but they do happen. On those days you just put him away. I can’t force him to do it, because to try to force him to train is a negative. It’s like telling a sick employee that they have to come to work. They’re gonna do the bare minimum. I know what he’s capable of and I want to see that all the time.”

Merrigan said it’s been important to avoid establishing a routine with Osci, because the nature of the job is inconsistent. It is rare, for example, that Osci eats at the same time two days in a row.

When he does eat, it’s nothing especially elaborate. Osci, it seems, is a simple man.

“He eats dog food,” Merrigan said. “It’s a high-protein dog food because that’s what he requires. But that’s all he eats.”

As for the future, Merrigan said he plans for Osci to live out his days with him and his family.

“I think it was a fun eight years,” he said. “It was what I thought it would be, what I hoped it would be. The dog met my expectations – and more.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319,
jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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