K-9 demo

Saranac Lake police officer shows off K-9 that’s waiting for work

Saranac Lake police officer Travis MacDonald and his K9 Vigo are seen at a demonstration at the Saranac Lake Free Library on Thursday. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

SARANAC LAKE — The village police department here hasn’t had a K-9 unit in 20 years, but Officer Travis MacDonald said he’s hoping that will soon change. His K-9 Vigo wants to work.

MacDonald brought Vigo to the Cantwell Room at the Saranac Lake Free Library Thursday to give a presentation on what K-9s are used for and show off the dog’s skills. MacDonald waited until the end of his presentation to bring Vigo in because he’s such an energetic dog.

“He just wants to search. He wants to smell everybody. He wants to make sure everybody is behaving,” MacDonald said.

At just over 100 pounds, MacDonald likes to joke that his German shepherd is part bear — because of his long, black hair. Vigo is 8 years old, approaching the end of his career, which MacDonald said is typically around a decade.

While the village approved police use of a K-9 unit in February of last year, MacDonald said there’s been hold-ups with liability.

“The biggest issue right now,” MacDonald said, “the village doesn’t want to designate a vehicle for just the purpose of K-9.”

MacDonald said he’s offered to transport Vigo in his own vehicle, but that presents an issue.

“If I get in an accident, and EMS needs to get a hold of me, (Vigo’s) going to be very protective of me,” MacDonald said.

Whereas if Vigo was secured in a vehicle designed to transport him, that would no longer be a problem.

“There’s been several times when we could’ve utilized him, but unfortunately he’s not working yet,” MacDonald said. “Hopefully we’re going to get the village to get him working.”

Vigo’s career as a K-9 started in 2013 after a 12-week training course with MacDonald when he worked with the Massena Police Department. When MacDonald came to work for the SLPD in 2017, he said he was lucky enough to be able to bring Vigo along.

Vigo is trained for narcotics detection as well as area searches and tracking.

“The use of a K-9 enhances law enforcement’s ability to capture criminals and save lives, along with being a highly visible deterrent to criminal activity,” MacDonald said.

Along with use as a law enforcement tool, MacDonald said K-9s can boost a police department’s connection to a community with public demonstrations and fundraisers.

With a sense of smell around a 100 times stronger than a human, MacDonald said Vigo can track a person up to three or four hours after someone has been in the area.

MacDonald explained it like this: When you walk into someone’s house and there’s some stew going on the stove, you just smell stew.

“You don’t smell the individual salt and the pepper. Dogs can,” MacDonald said. “They can smell the carrots in there. The celery. The potatoes. All individual scents that we can’t smell. … For dogs, they can break it down into individual scents.”

Having a K-9 can also help bring revenue into the police department, MacDonald said. Often when there are a lot of drugs present, there’s also a lot of cash, which police can seize through civil forfeiture.

For example, in MacDonald’s last job in Massena, he said he and his K-9 at the time, Coda, once stopped a man for speeding, but after questioning the man and catching him in a few lies, MacDonald brought Coda to search the car. The K-9 was drawn to a small cardboard box in the vehicle.

“I opened the box — there’s $178,000,” MacDonald said. “So we were able to seize it … and we were able to keep 80 percent of that.”

That money then goes back into the department’s general fund, MacDonald said. That’s useful because K-9s aren’t cheap. After importing the dog from Europe, and training costs are factored in, MacDonald said one K-9 costs about $20,000.

But, MacDonald said if the village can get Vigo working soon, he’s confident the department can raise enough money to pay for another dog when it’s Vigo’s time to retire.

When that happens, Vigo will continue to live with MacDonald.

“He is a cuddle bug. He loves to sleep on the couch.”