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Lisa Unleashed: MTA Police Canine Graduates - Furry First Responders



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The most recent Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) police graduates came heeling into New York City’s Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall last week amid the “Pomp And Circumstance Walking Commencement March” and the MTA Pipe & Drum Band Ceremonial Unit presenting of the colors. After bagpipe music filled the cavernous terminal, everyone fell silent when the Phantom of the Opera’s Marcus Lovett sang the national anthem. A moment of national pride.

This ceremony was like none other. Among the 19 law enforcement canine graduates, there were 15 MTA police dogs and two from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office. There were German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, several that were a mix of those two breeds, and two adorable yellow labs, hailing from the United States Park Police. The proud canine handlers and their partners walked forward, one  by one, executed a sit, and received their new badges dangling from a collar hung around their necks.

Graduates received either the 12-week explosive detection training and/or the 16-week anti-terrorism training at the 72-acre training facility in Stormville, N.Y. During the ceremony the canine unit’s executive officer, Lieutenant John Kerwick, explained how these dogs are a valuable tool with “four legs, a brain, keen instincts, good eyesight and a nose that is 3,000 times stronger than humans. They can interrupt a threat to keep MTA customers and employees safe.” One dog can scan an unattended package in minutes versus calling in the bomb squad.

The MTA Police Canine Unit, founded in 2002, is one of the largest explosives detection units in the country. It has approximately 50 dogs, which last year responded to 25,860 requests for service and inspected and cleared 2,584 unattended packages.

Connecticut MTA Police Canines

And while these police canines are first responders to a dangerous threat, they also carry a tribute each time their handlers calls their name. Each of them is named for a fallen hero or dedicated officer.

As each graduate received its badge, family members of the canine’s namesake were invited to come to the podium to share a moment of sacrifice and service that the dog’s name will carry on. Each family received a commemorative plaque with the dog’s photo, name, and a description of the officer’s sacrifice and service. Three of the graduates live in Connecticut and these are their stories.

K-9 George and MTA Police Officer Allan Fong from Fairfield.

George was named in honor of Police Officer George Wong of the NYPD, who died on May 24, 2011, from illnesses he contracted after inhaling toxic materials as he participated in the rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Fong said he wanted to name his dog after Wong, who helped him as a young NYPD officer. He and George have been through months of training in tracking, article recovery, subject searching, wide field search, and handler protection. The 91-pound German shepherd/Malinois mixed-breed is Fong’s first police dog.

“He has a very good temperament, is great at home, loves coming to work, loves being in the back of the truck,” Fong said. “He can’t get enough of coming to work!” And while his main purpose is to patrol MTA properties, he also assists other agencies in need of assistance, such as tracking down lost children. Each dog and handler develop a deep bond working so many hours together. “I’m with him like almost 24-7,” Fong said. “I spend more time with George than I do with my wife or kids.”

K-9 Johnny and MTA Police Officer Kevin Pimpinelli of Naugatuck.

Johnny is named in honor of Sergeant John Mullen of the MTA Police Department, who suffered a fatal heart attack while on duty on January 26, 2007. Mullen was Pimpinelli’s supervisor for many years. In fact, Pimpinelli’s first dog, Mullen, was also named for the late MTA sergeant. There were 12 Mullen family members in attendance at Johnny’s graduation.

K-9 Johnny had a blast at the graduation.

“He’s a social dog, loves people petting him, little kids walk right up to him, and even loves getting a belly rub,” Pimpinelli said.

The 2-year-old purebred German shepherd was born in the Netherlands. He is fully trained for explosives detection and certified in New York and Connecticut. K-9 Johnny can detect about 15 different explosive odors.

“Once he finds one, he’ll sit and stare right at that item. Then I have to interpret what he is doing,” Pimpinelli explained. It’s this communication between dog and handler that creates a great team.

Pimpinelli said that his first dog Mullen is retired and lives as his home. He joked that Johnny and Mullen both vie for his attention.

“They both sleep in the bedroom, one is on one side of the bed and one is on the other side of the bed. Sometimes, they both try to be on just one side.”

K-9 Vinny and MTA Sergeant William Finucane of Guilford.

Vinny is named in honor of Sergeant Vincent J. Oliva of the Port Authority Police Department, who died on November 27, 2013, after a battle with cancer. Sgt Oliva led the Port Authority Police Department’s Canine Unit. Today, Finucane is the head trainer for the MTA police canine unit. It was him and three assistant trainers — police officers John Brazil, Nelson Hernandez, and Allen Kirsch — who trained the 2015 graduating class.

K-9 Vinny is Finucane’s fifth dog, and came to him serendipitously.

“He wasn’t a planned dog. Vinny was going to replace another dog that was having problems, but he made it. So now I have a dog with no handler,” Finucane recalled. His dog was 12 years old and ready to retire, so Vinny became his.

Lisa Peterson — a lifelong equestrian, owner/breeder/handler of Norwegian Elkhound show dogs, and an award-winning public relations professional and podcast host — owns Barn Girl Media. She blogs about horses, hounds, and history at lisaunleashed.com from her home in Newtown. Reach her at lisa@lisaunleashed.com.

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