A life turned around: Franklin sheriff’s office, Pennsylvania police celebrate K9 Rigby’s transformation from erratic shelter dog to pro officer

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 03-18-2023 5:00 PM

Sometimes, all somebody needs is a chance. For one troubled shelter dog-turned K-9 officer, it’s made all the difference.

Rigby, a 2-year-old black German shepherd, recently became what Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Regional Dog Shelter Director Leslee Colucci called one of their “biggest success stories” upon his employment with the K-9 Drug Detection Unit in McKean County, Pennsylvania. Before this, though, Rigby hardly seemed fit for duty.

After being confiscated from a neglectful owner last March, staff at the Turners Falls dog shelter quickly observed “obsessive-compulsive” tendencies to a degree they had “never seen,” Colucci related.

“The only time he was basically somewhat happy was when he was inside,” she said. “As soon as you took him outside, he was neurotic. He would jump at shadows that weren’t there, he would grab at things that we didn’t know what he was grabbing at, you would be walking him on a leash and he would be going this way and that way. He was just not normal.”

“When I first started walking him, they had told me he was pretty active, chasing things that weren’t there, and chasing leaves,” said Montague Police Sgt. Jake Dempsey, a certified K-9 handler who was temporarily assigned to take Rigby on walks. “He was just chasing everything that moved, basically.”

Shelter manager Gabi Trudeau added that other professionals were equally confused as to what was the matter with Rigby.

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“We also had the dog evaluated by a number of different trainers and a couple of vets, and they said it was nothing medical going on,” she recalled. “They were stumped.”

Between Rigby’s tendency to lunge at other dogs and general capacity limitations at shelters nationwide, the dog would have been a candidate for euthanasia at other shelters, Colucci and Trudeau said. The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Regional Dog Shelter, however, practiced patience. Eventually, this patience blossomed into hope.

“The more things we gave him to entertain him and we walked him, the better he was,” Trudeau said.

Then, a breakthrough. Seeking ways of “getting his brain thinking,” shelter staff started tossing around a ball. To their amazement, the scatterbrained canine flipped a switch, maintaining unbreakable focus. Building upon this, Dempsey then started playing a game where he would throw a stick and Rigby would have to find where it landed.

“He wouldn’t give up until he found it,” Dempsey said.

He and shelter staff came to the same conclusion: Rigby just needed a job.

Dempsey began networking with trainers who could have had interest in taking the German shepherd under their wing. He ended up getting a call back from Bob Rinfrette, a trainer in western New York who “really felt this dog had potential,” Trudeau said.

“Your worst nightmare as a pet makes a great work dog,” Rinfrette said, paraphrasing a saying he’d heard regarding the benefits of having a high-energy service animal.

The shelter transferred Rigby to Rinfrette in May 2022. The first couple months of Rigby’s training, Rinfrette said, affirmed that the dog was “a rockstar.”

“There’s something magic about that dog,” he expressed.

As determined by Dempsey and the shelter, Rigby displayed a “really high retrieve drive,” Rinfrette recalled. The seasoned trainer capitalized upon this when putting the dog through drug detection training. This involved Rigby learning the odors of five drug types, as well as explosives, and seeking out associated materials when scattered as an exercise.

“For him, he was just looking for a toy that happened to smell like dope or explosives,” Rinfrette analogized.

Rinfrette’s efforts — and Rigby’s focus — paid off before long. Later that month, the pair fielded interest from Pennsylvania’s McKean County District Attorney’s Office, which was seeking a K-9 partner that would serve alongside an officer for the Bradford Police Department. To sweeten the deal, Rigby’s asking price was set at $200, a fraction of the average $9,000 cost for a trained police dog, according to Trudeau.

“We said, ‘For $200, take a chance on our boy. You won’t go wrong,’” she recounted.

The DA’s office took the chance. By June, Rigby had joined the Bradford Police Department. By October, Rigby was partnered with Dakota Eaton, a certified K-9 officer who had just begun working for the department that August.

For the department’s two relative newcomers, the learning curve was steep.

“It was very challenging at first,” said Eaton, who had never handled a police dog before Rigby’s assignment. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

Eaton described Rigby as “a bull in a china shop.”

“I think usually, with these kinds of dogs, they usually need to be imprinted at a young age,” he said. “It’s imperative to have the drive and the mindset to do what they do.”

Fortunately for Eaton, Rigby had both. With help from his “tremendous” nose, Rigby’s productivity evolved monumentally over the next few months, his demeanor “a night and day difference” from where it started, Eaton said.

These days, even when he and his handler are off the clock, Rigby is on call 24/7 to respond to emergencies across McKean County.

“In our city, narcotics are running through pretty crazy right now,” Eaton said of Bradford. “The first time I went out with Rigby, we were able to get a pretty good seizure on narcotics, and there was a firearm with it, too.”

In addition, Rigby attends social events around the region to mingle with members of the community. In doing so, he has achieved local celebrity status, his handler said.

“He’s staying busy,” Eaton said. “That’s all we can ask for.”

Back home at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Regional Dog Shelter, staff have relished hearing about Rigby’s progress over the past year. Trudeau expressed hope that Rigby’s story might help combat stigma against shelter dogs.

“Every dog is a little different,” Colucci said, “but you’ve got to give them time.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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