By Molly Kirk
Photos by Meghan Marchetti
There are currently five active K9 CPO teams serving DGIF and Virginia, with five new pairs aiming to join them. We’re going to follow along with the trainees for the DGIF K9 program as they develop their skills and become effective Conservation Police Officer partnerships ready to help protect and conserve Virginia’s wildlife and habitat, connect Virginians to the outdoors, and protect Virginia’s people and their property.
The five new human-and-canine teams have been getting to know each other for the past few months and are slated to begin the DGIF K9 Natural Resources Protection Training Program, which starts in early February and takes places at locations within Virginia. Graduation day for the trainees will be on May 8, where dogs that complete the K9 training are awarded their CPO badges. During the training, the five dogs and their handlers will learn human tracking, identifying and locating fish and wildlife, evidence recovery, and more.
Grace will be the youngest of the K9 trainees at just 9 months old when training starts. CPO Bonnie Braziel has been paired with Grace, a black Labrador Retriever, since December. Braziel says that Grace is a typical Lab in that “one of her favorite parts of the day is when she gets to eat. She even knows what the word ‘eat’ means now, so whenever anyone says it, she gets excited and grabs her bowl.” Grace also loves swimming and playing in the water. Chasing squirrels in Braziel’s back yard is also a passion of hers.
Braziel is looking forward to training with Grace. “Her drive to finish the track and find the bad guy trumps everything,” Braziel said. “When it is time to work, Grace locks in with laser focus on her task. She goes to work with me and gives it 110 percent every day.”
Molly is a chocolate Labrador Retriever that was born on June 1, 2018. Her handler, Senior CPO Wes Billings, is a veteran of the DGIF K9 program, as he has partnered with K9 Josie for seven years. Since Josie will be retiring soon to enjoy time on the couch with Billings’ family, Molly will train to take over her duties. Billings describes Molly as a “super high-energy dog with a high drive. She wants my attention at all times and to please me,” he said.
“We already have a great bond, and she is moving along in the first phases of training very well. Molly is very strong and muscular, which will allow her to be a good tracking dog. Molly will have the ability to follow the difficult tracks to the end regardless of length or weather conditions. I am looking forward to completing the next nine weeks of training and seeing how well Molly progresses.”
Lily will celebrate her first birthday in March while she’s training. The yellow Labrador Retriever is paired with Master CPO Mark Diluigi. “She’s a quiet dog, but when she gets in the woods, she’s a machine,” said Diluigi. “That’s where she loves to be. She’s got a great nose. When I throw her Kong into a thicket or in the woods, she will work back and forth until she finds it.”
Lily lives with Diluigi’s family, including his two teenage daughters, and has fit right in. “She’s very loving. She’ll crawl right up into our laps,” he said. “When she first got to us, she didn’t know how to get up into my truck, but now she jumps right in. She loves to get in the truck and go to work.” Diluigi has been a DGIF CPO since 1995, but the K9 program is new to him. “It’s as if I started a whole new career. This is all new to me, and I’m so excited to start learning about it,” he said.
A chocolate Labrador Retriever, Reese was born on Dec. 3, 2018. In a completely coincidental twist of fate, Reese was paired with CPO Ian Ostlund, who has a daughter named Reese! “Reese is an absolute sweetheart,” said Ostlund. “She loves taking walks around my hometown and meeting new people and dogs. She exhibits a seemingly limitless supply of energy and has been steadily increasing her confidence trying new things, such as stairs.”
When Reese first joined the Ostlund family, they noticed that she was terrified to navigate stairs. “My family and I have been taking Reese and our 8-year-old chocolate Lab, Mac, on long walks and exposing her to as many types of staircases as possible,” Ostlund said. “The other day she bravely climbed and descended two different large sets of metal bleachers, and two large playground slides (the spiral slide is her favorite)! Reese is already very strongly bonded to me, and wants to participate in whatever I’m doing. She loves riding in my Tahoe. I regularly challenge Reese while in the woods by throwing her Kong deep into brush and over logs. No matter how well her toy has been concealed, to date she has always found it, and she’s proud.”
Bruno, a chocolate Labrador Retriever, was a last-minute addition to the new K9 trainee class. He’s paired with CPO Tyler Blanks.
The DGIF Conservation Police K9 program is generously supported by the Caring for CPO K9s 501c3 fund through the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation. Donations to the fund are tax-deductible and go to support the dogs’ wellness, training, and veterinary expenses. Since the creation of the DGIF K9 program in 2011, the K9 teams have located numerous lost or missing persons, assisted state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies by locating evidence at crime scenes, and helped DGIF officers charge more than 1,000 wildlife-related cases.