PLAINFIELD – Forced retirement seems to agree with Vail.
After a four-year career as a narcotics-detection K9 with the Plainfield Police Department, the 5-year-old yellow Labrador has been living the easy life since Aug. 1, a month after a new state cannabis law prompted his removal from the force.
“He’s eating from a bowl for the first time in his life and gets to stay at home instead of working 12-16 hour shifts,” said Sgt. Daniel Wolfburg, Vail’s former partner and current housemate. “But he knows something’s different; he sees me going to work from the window.”
The decision to retire Vail came in July, soon after state legislators passed a wide-ranging marijuana legalization bill that, among other things, lays out new restrictions on how police may establish probable cause for a search of a person or vehicle.
Prior to the law’s passage, an alert on a vehicle by a narcotics-detecting K9 like Vail constituted probable cause and allowed an officer to conduct a search, seize evidence and make arrests – frequently on serious charges beyond that of simple weed possession.
“But it’s impossible to know if a K9 is alerting to heroin, cocaine or marijuana,” Chief Mario Arriaga said. “Now that recreational marijuana is legal, we can no longer use K9s at traffic stops.”
Arriaga as recently as late June, just days before the new law went into effect, said he hoped to keep Vail on the department’s roster, perhaps for use in searches or for other non-drug-related situations.
“Since we already have a patrol dog, Warin, whose trained in missing person searches and in evidence recovery, we decided to let Vail retire,” he said. “It’s a loss. Vail, besides being responsible for the seizure of a lot of drugs, cash and property, was a lovable dog and great out in the community. But we don’t want to put the town in a liability situation.”
Arriaga said he’s open to acquiring another drug-sniffing dog at some point, one who would not be trained in weed-detection.
“We’ve lost a great tool in Vail,” he said.
Putnam Police Department Chief Chris Ferace said the department has no plans to retire its sole drug-detecting K9.
“The K9 will still be used for search warrant cases for things like narcotics, not marijuana,” he said.
Norwich police Chief Patrick Daley said his department also has no plans to follow Plainfield’s lead in removing K9s from the force.
On Friday, Vail, sporting a blue bandana and a lolling tongue, romped around Wolfburg’s lawn, his eyebrows jumping as he shed copious amounts of pale hair into the air.
“The department lost a tool, but I don’t have a buddy riding around in the back anymore,” Wolfburg said. “He helped us seize a lot of illegal drugs, like crack cocaine and fentanyl, and more than $20,000 in drug-related money.”
While on the job, Vail was hand-fed only, part of the training a food-reward dog needs to stay sharp. Typically, that meant handfuls of kibble throughout the day – even when not on the clock – with the occasional treat throw in for variety.
“We just had a retirement party for him and he got steak and doggie Fig Newtons,” Wolfburg said. “On one hand this is a good thing. Most K9s like Vail, and he’s the only Labrador the department’s had, usually work for 10 years and retire – they usually live for about 12 years. But Vail put in four years and has another six or so to relax.”
Wolfburg, who is still the supervisor of the department’s K9 unit, said Vail, just by the sheer force of his personality, won over residents from both sides of the law.
“Even people we’d arrested in the past would say hello or decide they weren’t going to lie about having drugs on their person,” he said. “He’s got an obsessive personality, laid-back and kind of goofy when he’s not working.”
On July 14, soon after the retirement decision was made, Vail was called out after drug paraphernalia and packets of fentanyl were allegedly found in a vehicle.
“He ended up finding drugs under the seat of the vehicle,” Wolfburg said. “I’m hoping there’s still a future for the K9 drug-detection program here. But without a doubt, Vail has been the most successful drug-detecting dog the department’s had. And I can back that up with stats.”
John Penney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (860) 857-6965