Hero Animals

Many extraordinary animals are performing acts of valor, courage and compassion every day across the Granite State, and with their devotion to duty they are saving lives and making a positive impact

No statues have been erected in their honor, and they are not immortalized in literature and on film like U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Reckless, the highly decorated mare who served on the Korean War battlefield and is revered as America’s greatest warhorse. Nor are they as recognized as Balto, the beloved Siberian Husky who led a team of sled dogs in blizzard conditions on the 1925 serum run from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, that saved the lives of children during a deadly diphtheria outbreak.

Nonetheless, many extraordinary animals are performing acts of valor, courage and compassion every day across the Granite State, and with their devotion to duty they are saving lives and making a positive impact. They include diabetes alert dogs, Covid detection dogs, therapeutic riding equines, service animals, therapy animals, pets who alert their family to a burning home and other disasters, and those serving and protecting in various law enforcement agencies.

Meet some especially deserving of the spotlight.

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Deputy Matt Fleming, ICAC task force member, and Niko. Photo by Charlene Graham

Niko, a 3-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, is New Hampshire’s only electronic storage detection (ESD) dog and one of just 66 ESD K-9s in the country with this unique ability. Niko finds electronics containing evidence of child exploitation, and he is a formidable weapon in the fight as a full team member on the New Hampshire Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force.

“It’s fantastic that Niko is able to help us in locating and identifying that evidence, and that is one of the greatest things that you could ever teach a dog. There is never a day when I am not constantly amazed by what he is able to do, and that is in more than one way,” says Niko’s handler Matt Fleming, the Hillsborough County deputy sheriff who has served in law enforcement for 30 years and is assigned to ICAC. “Every single day when we go to work, Niko does something that changes the game for us here in New Hampshire.”

With technology advancing rapidly and devices getting smaller, it becomes continually more difficult for the human officers when they’re executing search warrants to locate the material needed to arrest and successfully prosecute the perpetrators. Proof of their crimes can be found on cell phones, tablets, hard drives, flash drives, computers, hidden cameras, SD (secure digital) cards, micro SD cards and anything else that stores data.

When these devices are manufactured, they’re sprayed with a distinct chemical that prevents them from overheating. Niko can smell that chemical.

“He is unbelievable. He can find something the size of a hidden micro SD card. That’s about the size of your baby fingernail. He finds what we humans miss,” says Fleming. “He finds something every time we deploy. New Hampshire is really lucky to have him. The ICAC understands his value. I’m super proud of the work Niko is doing. He’s a very, very talented electronic storage detection dog.”

Make no mistake. The work ICAC does is hard. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s heartbreaking. Moreover, it weighs heavily on the team.

“We hunt the evil that people pretend doesn’t exist. Our task force group is out there looking for the worst of the worst. Those are the people who prey upon innocent children, the kids who can’t help themselves,” Fleming says. “In my opinion, there is no greater job than to find these people, stop their exploitation, and hold them accountable. But it is tough work. Very tough,” he adds.

“One of the things that Niko has done for us has allowed us not only to get better at finding these people, which is unbelievable, but to also allow us to take that breath so we can stay in the fight. He keeps us in the fight every day, whether it’s finding evidence or helping the investigator get through the moment. That’s important. We needed that,” he says.

Niko often goes into the ICAC office to visit the digital forensics investigators who spend their shifts pouring over image after image of child exploitation. When Niko’s task is to “just be a dog,” and a playful one at that, he brings lightness and joy.

“He allows them to take a break and not have to worry about what they’re seeing and dealing with because that is horrific stuff. It’s brutal. It’s so hard dealing with that content,” says Fleming. “He does his job for them. I’ve also seen him do that with victims and with families who are really stressed. He’s extraordinary. I don’t know how we did it before without him.”

Fleming says that ICAC doesn’t know the hard and fast number of how many kids Niko has already saved. They will never know.

“There certainly have been some cases where he has been involved in the rescue of live children. But what about the kids who are in the videos and the images that we either never identify or we have identified over the years who continue to be exploited by the internet? He’s saved all those kids. It’s pretty powerful stuff,” he says.

Terming Niko a hero is insufficient.

“He is a superhero. Saving children matters. On some of our darkest days in the field, that dog has also saved me. He’ll never even know he did that, and that’s what makes Niko so special.”

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Karen Borgstrom of the Hug a Hound program is with Kooper after a day visiting patients and hospital staff. Photo by Charlene Graham

Love is a four-legged word. That’s the opinion of the healthcare professionals, patients and staff at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, all benefiting from the Hug A Hound program.

Hug a Hound, which has been in existence for 20 years, operates with all-volunteer teams comprised of an accepted, registered therapy dog who has graduated from the nationally based Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs of Vermont and his or her owner/handler. Due to the restrictions of Covid protocols, there are currently just three active teams crossing over between the main hospital and the Palliative Care Center, and they also visit the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth (CHaD) by special request.

“This is a very popular program. Everyone wants a therapy dog,” says Marcy Sanborn, who has been DHMC’s director of volunteer services for 23 years.

Golden retrievers Dudley and Kooper, and wheaten terrier Sholi and their owners, whose names are withheld for privacy reasons, were asked to make an appearance at the first two Covid vaccination clinics for children aged 5 to 11. They were the star attraction and made the experience much less scary and even enjoyable for the kids.

Normally, the teams are only allowed to visit certain units, none of them surgical, and are assigned to that unit at a specific date and time. They are guided by nursing leaders and infection control teams to determine assignments and, on occasion, grant special requests. They also visit with doctors, nurses and staff, when available.

“There is enormous anticipation for their arrival. From the moment they enter our doors until the moment they leave, everyone is happy these dogs are here,” Sanborn says. “There is a release and letting go of stress when you’re hugging a dog.”

Even though they’re graduates of the external training program, the dogs must also pass DHMC’s evaluation to make sure they’re comfortable and stay calm in a hospital environment.

“They’re tested for startle alerts, so if an alarm goes off, the dog won’t react in a bad way. Their human has to be aware of the activity on the unit so they can make sure to control and guide the dog out of the way if there is a patient in a bed being taken to an appointment or somewhere else. They need to be aware of instrumentation like IV lines. They have to be very aware at all times to keep the dog away from any medical equipment,” Sanborn explains. “We get a lot of applications, but there is a process to be a volunteer in the program.”

Due to privacy restrictions, Sanborn says she can’t detail specific success stories with patients, though she terms them “incredible.”

“There may be a patient who has not smiled in days, and then when they see the dog in their doorway, they will smile. This is an unexpected bonus,” says Sanborn. “Who doesn’t smile when they see the dog? Very few people. They are such a cheery thing. It uplifts the staff and the patients as the dogs walk through the hallways. They bring a smile to faces and begin a conversation someone might not otherwise want to have.”

A copious amount of commitment and compassion is required of the teams, who are onsite four days per week but are limited to a shift of no more than one and a half hours, or less depending upon the individual dog’s stamina.

“The dogs are here to be petted and to give love and receive love. They do experience compassion fatigue. They take in so much on their visits, whether it be from the patients, the family members or the staff who are going through so many emotions,” says Sanborn.

She adds that the value of the Hug a Hound program is immeasurable.

“It’s emotional value and benefit. These volunteers and their dogs add that extra special touch sometimes that staff can’t. Staff have to move on to the next patient, but volunteers have the opportunity to stay bedside with their dog and provide that extra special touch,” Sanborn says. “One of the most famous quotes is ‘Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.’”

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Cora and Fish and Game officer James Benvenuti. Photo by Charlene Graham

The Granite State’s wild landscape, roaring rivers, and rugged mountain ranges present daily challenges for the search-and-rescue teams of New Hampshire Fish and Game, who are summoned in every kind of weather and changing light conditions in all four seasons.

They always answer the call.

“You don’t think about the lives that we’ve saved and the importance of our work when you’re going through it, but when a situation comes up, it’s interesting. There has been a lot of pressure,” says James Benvenuti, a conservation officer and head of the Canine Unit for 11 years. “When any canine team shows up to a scenario where there is someone missing, everybody counts on you to be the magician and pull the rabbit out of your hat. The importance definitely shows when those situations come about.”

Benvenuti and his dog Cora, plus Winni and Officer Ken St. Pierre, Moxie and Officer Eric Fluette, and Koda and Officer Richard Crouse each cover a region of the state. Ruger and Lt. Robert Mancini recently retired.

“We look for the missing children, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia sufferers, lost hikers, mountain climbers, everyone. We also track bad guys, whether that’s a bank robber, a burglar, you name it. Anybody that needs to be or wants to be found, we are out there looking for,” says Benvenuti.

The Fish and Game Department is featured on the TV series “North Woods Law: New Hampshire” on the Animal Planet network. The October 3, 2021, episode “Courageous Canines” focused on this unit, which responds to about 25 calls per year, with the number increasing.

“Our success rate? It’s all circumstantial. I don’t have statistics relative to successes and failures, but I would say that our success rate is extremely high in situations that allow it. Tracking is a fickle beast. There are a lot of things that can hamper the scenario,” Benvenuti says.

Most of it is contamination and age. The dogs, all Labrador retrievers, with three bred and donated by Rise and Shine Retrievers in Barnstead, are trained to find human odor generated by skin cells shed when someone walks away. As Benvenuti explains, they are microscopic and only the dogs can detect them.

“When a certain amount of time passes, whether its four hours or six hours, obviously the wind and the environment can take those skin cells and disperse them to the point the dogs can’t find them. Or if there has been a large-scale search effort prior to us looking, that’s what we call contamination. Firefighters, family members, the public, all those people are out there putting out different levels of scent and odor that the dogs must work through. That is very challenging,” he says. “It’s all circumstantial, but in a clean environment all our dogs do an incredible job.”

These dogs are driven to locate what the officers need them to find, whether that is a missing person, a shotgun shell or something else. They have the drive to continue to push through large search areas that can be miles on end, keep tasking after hours have passed, and still want to continue to please their handlers.

Cora was heralded for an act of heroism in 2020, when she and Benvenuti were called to a Stratham home to assist finding a missing 12-year-old girl with intellectual disabilities. They arrived just an hour and a half before it got dark.

“Cora picked up the track, went down into the backyard, down a steep embankment and across the trail and down into a swamp. This was a dry year, so the swamp didn’t have any standing water in it, but it went down to a muddy footprint. It still had enough moisture so that Cora post-holed up to her armpits of all four legs, so I had to walk up next to her — up to my thighs in mud — and take her to where we could see footprints in the mud, and then literally throw Cora along the track until we got up onto some harder ground,” recalls Benvenuti, who was aided by a Stratham police officer.

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Fish and Game officer James Benvenuti follows Cora on a tracking run.

“Once we got there, it was a very thick underbrush. Cora tracked through that for another 300 yards. She found the girl stuck underneath a big blown-down log in the middle of that swamp, to the point where I couldn’t see her until we were five feet in front of her. She wasn’t responsive to people calling for her,” he adds.

“That girl did not like men in uniform, but she loved dogs. She latched onto Cora and then was all smiles. She ended up taking a piggyback ride on me all the way out through the swamp and back up to her house.”

Benvenuti says that without Cora he would not have found the girl that night. He guesses otherwise it would have been late the next day that they found her, if they did at all.

“It was a scary situation. This is one of many successes,” he says.

Now the unit’s canines are asked to do even more. They are being trained as air scent dogs as well as tracking ones. Then they will be able to search for someone in a broad area so that even if the officers don’t have a known point where the person was last seen, they can still run through the woods with their nose in the air to catch a whiff of where they are lost or hiding.

“Our dogs are incredible. Their ability to learn is amazing. It’s incredible how quickly they can pick up what you want them to do. They are all heroes,” Benvenuti says.

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The Manchester Police Department’s K-9 Unit back row, from left: Officer Colburn and Duke, Officer Martens and Grimm, Officer Hennessy and Kane, Officer Grant and Ollie, and Sergeant Megowen and Wiley; front row, from left: Officer Tyler and Doug, Officer Daigneault and Oakley, Sergeant Foster and Hank, and Detective Thibault and Otis. Photo by Charlene Graham

The officers serving in the City of Manchester Police Department’s Mounted Patrol Unit and K-9 Unit regularly deal with people having their worst days. “These dogs are often the difference, whether the officers get to go home at the end of the day,” says Lt. John Cunningham, the K-9 Unit’s head trainer and supervisor.

There are nine teams in the unit, and the primary purpose of the German shepherds, Dutch shepherds and Belgian malinois is to locate people. They can detect human scent, or they can locate narcotics or other drugs and explosive ordinance as well as ballistics.

All the teams work in patrol divisions, so all 24 hours of each day there is a highly trained, extremely intelligent, and intensely loyal dog on the street working every shift.

“These dogs go to the worst of the worst calls with their handlers,” says Cunningham. “We put these dogs in harm’s way on a daily basis. It’s not because we want them to get hurt. It’s because they’re very good at finding things that officers can’t, and they keep the officers safe. They are very important.”

The K-9s, which include a single-purpose Labrador retriever for scent in the special enforcement division, safeguard everyone.

“The success of the K-9 unit is phenomenal. It’s important to get the accurate description of what these dogs do and don’t do as they work to protect the public,” Cunningham says. “Our bomb teams work to protect the president when he comes into the city. We use them at the big venues and events, we use them for dignitary visits, and for parades when they do all the sweeps. These dogs are always working behind the scenes too, during normal events. These are very special dogs.”

The same is true for the two horses in the Mounted Patrol Unit, General Stark and relative newcomer Bruno. Eddy, a small Shetland pony, recently joined the force, and he is the only police therapy pony in New England, and is believed to be just one of two in the country.

“You just look at him and he makes you smile. Plus, he’s so soft and he loves people. His personality is wonderful,” says Officer Kelly McKenney, who heads the last standing mounted unit in the state.

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Officer Kelly McKenney with Eddy, the Shetland pony. Photo by Charlene Graham

“He’s a less intimidating than the big horses to interact with people, especially some kids. I want to bring him to nursing homes, schools, the VA hospital and other businesses. I want to bring him places to boost morale where needed because who doesn’t love a pony?”

McKenney and General Stark, and the mounted patrol horse Valor, now deceased, were showstoppers when on patrol downtown and while participating in community events. Their police work, including apprehending suspects, is critical. The bridges they build is vital.

“When I’m out on patrol with the horses, I often talk to people who would never otherwise talk to an officer. These horses instinctively know when somebody needs kindness. They know when someone is broken,” she says.

“They just know this kid or this person needs them. That’s when you know you have good animal. There is a magic to these horses and the pony. It truly is a magical connection they have with people. A hero doesn’t have to rescue somebody from a burning building. This is about how they treat someone and change someone’s life in a positive way. These horses are legitimate heroes. Absolutely.”

Categories: Pets