ALBANY — Skiff, a handsome and muscular 3-year-old German shepherd, showed no signs of having the butterflies when he was called to the stage Tuesday to be recognized as one of latest graduates of the State Police Canine Handler Basic School in Cooperstown.
Striding along next to him at the New York State Police Academy in Albany was his handler, Trooper Christopher May, assigned to Troop C headquarters in Sidney.
The two had just spent a rigorous five months together in Cooperstown. The program moved there in 2000 after Cooperstown philanthropist Jane Forbes Clark, the head of the Clark Foundation, provided state police with a 10,000 square foot building where the dogs could be trained in the Otsego County countryside.
May said he determined he could help the state police by joining the K-9 unit.
But he needed a partner first. Enter Skiff, named for James A. Skiff, the first state trooper in the history of the storied agency to be killed in the line of duty. He was killed May 25, 1920, while riding in a motorcycle sidecar that collided with a trolley in Ogdensburg. He was 39 years old.
May is that age now. “When I was in the Army. I was a military police officer, and I had worked with dogs,” he recalled. Skiff, the shepherd, turned out to be a rapid learner, and the two bonded almost as soon as they met.
“I love the partnership and what is involved in it, and how you and the dog can actually develop at the same time,” he said. “You become really cohesive with one another.”
The dog’s skills include explosive detection, tracking and area searching. If a firearm is discharged and tossed into a field, Skiff is trained to zoom in on it because his acute olfactory senses will lead him to gunpowder odor.
While Skiff enjoys his playtime — he especially likes to frolic with children — he also has an uncanny knack for knowing when it’s time for business, May said.
“He is a aggressive when he needs to be aggressive,” he said when asked about Skiff’s disposition.
May and Skiff were one of 13 teams of police handlers and dogs to receive their certifications from the Canine program Tuesday. Each team must return to Cooperstown biannually for recertification.
The greatest challenge during training was getting to the point where dog and handler “are on the same playing field,” May said.
“We kept working together until I could read him,” he said. “If he does something that makes me frustrated, that frustration will actually go down the lead, and he’ll actually stop working.”
He said he is looking forward to going out on patrol with Skiff. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” the trooper said.