K-9 Lafferty is newest four-legged employee at Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office

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WATERTOWN — Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Lafferty and his handler, Deputy Christian D. Hughes, graduated from the New York State Police K-9 school in Cooperstown on Friday morning and are ready to serve.

Former Sheriff James L. Lafferty said that when he was asked if the 13-month-old Belgian Malinois could be named after him, it was an easy decision.

“My mind was spinning when I got that (phone call), but it didn’t take me long to decide,” he said.

Sheriff Colleen M. O’Neill said she is grateful the former sheriff said yes.

“I think it’s a great fit and a great match. He’s a handsome dog and Sheriff Lafferty’s a wonderful man, and was a fantastic sheriff,” Sheriff O’Neill said. “So he’s got success written all over him.”

At the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, K-9s are traditionally named after former sheriffs. One K-9 was named after Sheriff O’Neill’s late father.

Sheriff O’Neill allowed the deputy to pick the name, O’Nei, pronounced “Oh-nee” to honor Sheriff O’Neill’s father.

“I lost my dad a few years ago, but I know that he’s looking down very, very proud of that honor, and it makes me extremely happy too,” she said.

Sheriff O’Neill said that the K-9 unit takes advice from the state police program on which dog breeds and what specific dog to choose.

The other part of the process involved making sure Deputy Hughes and K-9 Lafferty are connected.

“Of course we sent Deputy Hughes and his supervisor down to meet the dog a couple of times before we actually brought him home, and made sure that they were a good match and sent them to school,” she said.

There are some specific qualities that the department looks for in a dog, Sheriff O’Neill said.

“We look specifically for dogs that can track lost kids, or criminals, that we can trust them to protect the handlers and other deputies, that they can find what they’re trained to find whether it be explosives or narcotics,” she said. “But we also want dogs that kids can walk up to and pet, that we can walk around the county fair with, and that we can do demonstrations with. So that’s probably the toughest challenge is to find a dog that’s so good at their police work, but are also calm enough for kids to approach. … That’s kind of the magic potion.”

In order to qualify to have a K-9, a deputy sheriff needs to have a few years under their belt because of how long the commitment is.

“Deputy Hughes was a perfect candidate for a K-9 handler,” Sheriff O’Neill said. “I think on day one he made it pretty clear that’s what he was going to do someday.”

“Since the first day in the agency, and even before that it’s something I’ve wanted to do,” Deputy Hughes said. “So to be able to take my partner home every night with me it’s just, it’s fantastic, I’m beyond excited about it. There’s times we don’t always click and bond as well as we should. We have our moments, but overall, he’s been great. He’s going to do fantastic things, not just for the department, but for the citizens of Jefferson County as well.”

Once the process started, Deputy Hughes brought K-9 Lafferty home with him to begin bonding — no training, just bonding. K-9 Lafferty then began to live with Deputy Hughes and he took him to work every day until they started at the academy. Deputy Hughes said the training process begins with the basics such as learning to sit and stay, of which he said “you would think is an easy task, but put 10 dogs up front and try to teach them how to sit, it was challenging.” After the basics, K-9s move on to narcotic detection, then to tracking, then to apprehension.

Deputy Hughes said that the dogs start off slow, with tracking a toy for 15 to 20 yards before extending the distance.

“Eventually you get to the point where there’s actually another human at the end of the track building searches,” he said.

He called the course rigorous.

“With all the training, you just start to bond more and more and more, and it’s just as much teaching the handler as it is the dog,” Deputy Hughes said. “Typically the dog is picking it up faster, it’s the handler trying to figure out the dog, and the different quirks that he has and how to read the dog, and as we went along we just kept bonding and bonding and now I got a partner. He’s right there on the road with me all the time so it’s awesome.”

The program, which normally takes about 20 weeks, took about 14 weeks for K-9 Lafferty and Deputy Hughes. The shortened program was a retread class, due to older dogs being cycled out. In the retread class, only two of the 10 people involved had never been handlers before, including Deputy Hughes.

Deputy Hughes described having K-9 Lafferty with him as being “unbelievable.”

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