Duke earns his keep

Recapping a year of police comfort dog program

Williston’s police comfort dog Duke is about to turn 1.

In his first year, the black Labrador retriever has visited Williston schools 29 times, attended 68 community events and responded to 20 emergency situations, according to Duke’s handler, Officer Matt Cohen.

Cohen provided a first-year recap of the police department’s comfort dog program — the first of its kind in the State of Vermont — last week to the selectboard. Going into year two of the program, the police department expects Duke’s presence in the community to increase as COVID restrictions are hopefully eased.

Lt. Josh Moore said Duke will make more visits to schools in the coming year and will be a fixture at the Isham Farmers’ Market this summer.

In addition to a community relations role, Duke’s primary responsibility is to comfort crime victims and witnesses in emergency situations. Since arriving in Williston as a puppy in May, and undergoing continuous training at Williston’s Thin Blue Line K9 school, Duke has responded to car crashes, sexual assaults, grieving communities and COVID vaccination clinics.

Cohen highlighted one incident where Duke comforted two children on a roadside as their parent was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.

“The kids only remember interacting with Duke and not their parent being arrested,” Cohen said. “He had a major impact.”

Another standout occasion was spending three consecutive days at Williston Central School after the unexpected death of a student.

The dog facilitates communication, helps victims and witnesses get through trauma and helps first-responders deal with calls involving mental health crises, Cohen said.

“This has been a great tool for us in a number of cases,” he said.

— Jason Starr