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Canton Police Department looks for help with Community Service Dog Program

By John Fitts

Staff Writer

Leo, with Officer Jonathan Phelps.

CANTON – K-9 Leo was recently welcomed to the Canton Police Department, and he could soon be the town’s official Community Service Dog – provided the department receives the necessary funding from area residents, service organizations and businesses.

Leo came to police in mid July and has spent much of his time since then with Officer Jonathan Phelps, as well as some time with Capt. Andrew Schiffer.

Already, Leo has boosted the morale of officers and other town employees, made a splash at local events and has helped comfort both children and adults who have visited the police station under less than ideal circumstances, Schiffer told Board of Selectmen members on Sept. 13 as the department pitched the idea of starting a fully community funded program.

“Leo’s an icebreaker; his friendliness helps us be more approachable to the community, which is why we’ve titled this program [as that of] a community service dog – not necessarily just a comfort dog or a therapy dog,” Schiffer said.

With a 4-1 Board of Selectmen vote that evening, the program – to be funded entirely through donations - is officially off the ground. Donations can be given via or checks made payable to The Town of Canton, care of the Canton Police Department, 45 River Road, Canton CT 06019. Be sure to note Leo in the subject line.

The 5 and ½ month old lab was picked up by police along Gracey Road in mid July and a short time later, officers learned that the owner had decided not to keep the dog, police said.

And while an untold number of local residents would have been thrilled to take him, another idea emerged.

“During that time, officer Jon Phelps took the dog on a foster situation, so he didn’t have to stay in the pound,” Schiffer said. “While Jon was fostering, he recognized that hey this little fella has some potential.”

Phelps and his wide Alessandra have a 6-year-old lab, Gunnar, who was trained as therapy dog to help Phelp’s aunt with a traumatic brain injury.

In Leo, Phelps notice gentleness and behavior traits that could make for a good therapy dog.

Leo attends a Canton Board of Selectmen meeting.

“I took him home to take care of him for the time being - just to keep him out of the pound - but pretty quickly we realized that Leo had the potential to do something great for this community and he could change people’s lives,” Phelps said.

Phelps also realized that a police therapy dog’s training is a bit more intense and he researched communities with similar programs, including Simsbury and Farmington.

A master trainer with the North American Police Work Dog Association has also evaluated Leo, police department officials said.

“All the puzzle pieces started falling into place for the dog,” Phelps said. “It just fell into our lap and it was literally a miracle that this all worked out and that we could do this, but it’s going to be a fun process seeing this come to fruition.”

The process was indeed a little different than many towns that decide to have such a program ahead of time and purchase a specially trained dog from an organization that specializes in such work.

Years ago, a proposal to have a community dog program in Canton did not get the support of administrators in place at the time, said Sgt. Derek Messier, who is President of the Canton Police FOP Lodge 44. Messier appreciates not only the way is Leo great for the department and the community, but also the way the program fell into place organically.

“In a lot of ways it’s serendipity,” he said. “I think that part about the organic beginnings of all this is really important for the public to understand too. We didn’t go out actively seeking this, it just kind of fell into our lap and it was a stroke of luck and serendipity that’s its kind of worked the way it has so far."

The department, however, knew that this wasn’t the time to ask for the program to be funded from the town coffers and thus proposed the community backed program. Even before the meeting, community groups had verbally committed more than $10,000 and other businesses have committed dog-related items.

“I think just from the initial support that we’ve seen from the public, it just gives you a real strong sense of the Canton community that they’ve already been very proactive and positive in their response to this idea and we are greatly appreciative of that,"Police Chief Christopher Arciero said.

“I think any time you can have the community invested in its public safety, and we have that mutual cooperation and mutual buy-in, it think it helps a lot,” Messier added.

That community piece is crucial in every respect, officers said. There's a reason Leo - which stands for Law Enforcement Officer - is known as Leo_Legitimus on Instagram.

“We figure since he’s community oriented and is going to be out there serving the community, that it would be cool if the community could back the whole program and we could run it off of donations for him,” Phelps said. “ We’ve gotten an outpouring of support already which is amazing to show that he really does have potential."

Now with that Board of Selectmen support, the department is actively seeking donations, hoping to raise $45,000 to fund the program for three years. While some selectmen were hoping to see that amount raised prior the program launch, the department said it’s crucial to begin training soon.

There is also no guarantee that Leo will successfully complete such training, although the department is very hopeful in the positive signs shown so far.

In all, the department anticipates a cost of $20,000 for the first year - driven up one-time costs, such as cruiser modification of approximately $6,000. Deborah Clark of K9 Search and Rescue is donating Leo’s training, but the department noted a donation to the organization as part of the initial expenses. Annual costs in future years are estimated closer to $11,000.

Phelps realizes that there is no guarantee he will be chosen as the handler. He said he’d love to do the job but supports the program no matter what. He believes it will help police reach members of the community.

Leo at the Canton Police Department. Submitted Photo.

“Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to walk up to a police officer and say hi, so we want to build those relationships with the young community as they get older they know police officers, they know us," he said. "They see us as people they can come talk to. That’s what we really want is to make this community oriented and be able to build faith back in police officers, which has been lost over the last few years.”

Phelps sees so many situations for the dog to be of service – in the schools, among the elderly, to town employees, at local shopping centers and as a comfort to those in abusive and a myriad of other situations. He also said Leo is a bright spot for officers, firefighters, medics, DPW workers and other first responders, particularly after a difficult call.

“The cool thing about this program is that his training will never end. He’s going to keep learning, keep doing different things,” Phelps said. “We have very high hopes for him. The amount of stuff he’s already done with the community, it’s just crazy. He’s great with kids, he’s great with the elderly community; he makes a difference is the PD. He makes a huge difference with the guys.. It’s really crazy how this works and it makes a huge difference. … He has a ton of potential. There’s an endless amount of work for him to do.”

While Leo will have different tasks from the stereotypical picture of a K9 unit, police therapy dogs are a growing trend.

Leo rests next to Gunnar, a dog owned by Jonathan Phelps and his wife Alessandra. Submitted photo.

“It is an emerging trend in policing to have these community service dogs,” Arciero said. “That emerging trend, I think, is positive. It provides a benefit for the internal morale of the department members, not just the police, but everybody within the building. It provides a great connection for the department to the community and in today’s world, with a lot of the stressers coming out of the COVID era and everything. Having a community service dog could be a potential game change as far as improving relations with the community and the interaction with the police department.”

In addition to the Go Fund Me, updates can be found on the Canton Police Department pages on Facebook and instagram. Leo himself has an Instagram page as Leo_Legitimus and @leo.legitimus on Facebook.

Leo with Officer Jonathan Phelps.
Leo does his part at a Canton Police Department Child Safety Seat event.


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