MASON, Mich. —
Monday, April 19, was Mason Police Department's first day with a K-9 unit, and its first K-9 officer is a shelter dog.
Heidi Williams said it's her "most favorite thing that she has done" as director of Ingham County Animal Control and Shelter (ICACS) since she started her position in late 2019.
Last summer, Tamarack was one of 80 German Shepherds seized from a home in St. Clair County. She and seven others were taken in by ICACS.
"These dogs had been kept in pretty atrocious conditions outside: no shelter; limited food, water, and contact with people. They were in various states of being shut down -- a lot of them were very fearful," Williams said. "You could tell they just hadn't had an easy life so far."
Williams brought in a volunteer former K-9 handler to spend time with the dogs to gain their trust. It was realized early on there was something, "very special" about Tamarack. Williams remembered Mason Police Chief Don Hanson mentioning the department wanted to start a K-9 program.
"So kind of on a whim I reached out to him and said, 'Hey, I might have a dog for you.' He probably thought I was crazy at first like most people would," Williams laughed. Tamarack was then evaluated by numerous experts, including trainers, animal behaviorists, and a veterinarian.
Tamarack's handler, 24-year-old Officer Hayden Wildfong, said he knew he wanted to be a K-9 officer before he got into law enforcement. He started as a part of Mason P.D. in September 2019.
"During the hiring process I told them that it was my five-year plan to become a K-9 officer and they started talking about it, and they got it in the works and the rotary club funded it," Wildfong said.
Despite Tamarack being a shelter dog, the cost to start Mason's first K-9 unit was more than $20,000. The Rotary Club of Mason was able to raise the money by Dec. 7, less than one month after the fundraiser was announced on Nov. 12. After an interviewing process, Wildfong was officially chosen to be Tamarack's handler. Tamarack moved in with Wildfong in February.
"The trust built almost immediately after I got her," Wildfong said. "We started doing some obedience training with each other. She's a very obedient dog."
Tamarack graduated from her K-9 training on April 16 as a dual-purpose police dog.
"I went to her graduation on Friday, I got to see her graduate," Williams smiled. "She's just an awesome dog. She's not only highly intelligent, and she's going to be just an amazing working dog, but she's also just a really great pet. She knows when to turn it on and turn it off. She's super personable -- she loves people...she's the perfect dog for Mason. She'll be able to go into schools and kids will be able to love on her, and she'll also be able to track bad guys and sniff bombs. She's going to be awesome."
Tamarack is trained in detecting explosives, tracking, and general patrol.
"Her duties on general patrol will be tracking an elderly person who walks away from their house, a young kid who walks away from their house, or a suspect who runs from a scene, a crime scene," Wildfong explained. He continued, "She did very well in school. She's a very quick learner, which makes my job a lot easier...she has everything you would want in a patrol dog."
Williams said it is rare for a shelter dog to become a part of a K-9 unit, in this area at least. While it may vary from state to state, most K-9s are bred and trained specifically for law enforcement or military work, and then imported from Europe at a great cost.
"In my school, there were five other dogs, and they were all from Poland," Wildfong said. "She was the only one that was a rescue and she worked just as well if not better than the other dogs."
"The community support for this -- it brought tears to my eyes," Williams said. "We're really excited to watch her have her career right here in our back yard. There's just something very special about her. It's just so amazing to see a community be willing to take a risk like this on a shelter animal. Shelter animals are not disposable. There are some amazing dogs and cats that come through our shelter at no fault of their own."
Tamarack's first day on duty went, "very well. She was just riding in the back seat with me, getting used to her new life. This is obviously a start-up program for us, so we're learning as we go."
Wildfong said Tamarack's estimated to be around two years old and will be a part of the Mason Police Department until she retires. He said the average service life for a dog is about five to seven years.
The other seven German Shepherds from the seizure in St. Clair County were also adopted, along with another four ICACS took in later.
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