The Natick Police Department welcomed its newest member of the force during the Jan. 13 Board of Selectmen meeting while giving another officer a hefty compliment.
Natick Police Chief James Hicks applauded Officer Michael Mabardy for taking on the responsibility of starting the department's first-ever K-9 unit, one that was first approved last year.
"We found out very quickly how important it was to have the right officer in this position temperment-wise," Hicks said. "At the time Officer Michael Mabardy was chosen, it took a week-and-a-half to start the training. He came up to speed with what was needed: equipment, scheduling and choosing a partner."
Axel, a German shepherd, was given full support of the Board to add him to the force.
Training of Natick's newest K-9 unit started Sept. 30 at the Boston Police Academy, but he's been working the streets since last week.
Mabardy said after a slow start, Axel is learning something new every day.
"When he comes out of the car, he knows it's time to work," Mabardy said of his 1 1/2-year-old partner. "He's pretty dialed-in now."
Mabardy said to keep Axel sharp there's a no-petting policy.
"I don’t want him to second guess when he's apprehending a suspect," he said. "I'm sure people will want to pet him, but when he comes out of the car it’s time to work."
The Board approved a proposal from Hicks to add a K-9 unit in June. The town received a grant to fund the unit, which was approved in September.Funding came from the Stanton Foundation, which offers grants to support the creation of K-9 units in cities and towns.
Grants of approximately $25,000 are intended to cover initial acquisition and training costs, plus ongoing costs for a total of three years.
Total startup costs are estimated at $17,700 per dog, including acquisition, training, conversion of a cruiser for K-9 use, construction of an outdoor kennel, a K-9 bulletproof vest, and dog food.
"We are very appreciative of those who donated and continue to support the program." Hicks said.
Mabardy said Axel, who was bred in the Czech Republic, recently completed a 14-week handling course. The bond was slow to develop, but has strengthened in a short amount of time.
"When we started, we only had two days together before class started," he said. "Our bond came with training. He passed everything on the first try."
Mabardy said he's fully committed to his new partner, which includes giving him a 6x14-foot insulated dog house, although he's crated indoors once the temperature dips below 20 degrees.
"I don’t want to do this at 50 percent. If I felt couldn’t give it 100 percent, I wouldn't have applied for the position," he said. "Every night I take him out, we do some different training ... building searches, tracking, every night there's something to be done to keep him fresh and alert. His skills are perishable. He needs that work every day."
Depending on his health, Axel is expected to be on the force for a while.
"Probably five to seven years," Mabardy said, adding a dog's hip condition dictates his length of service. "It can be longer if his health is good. The vet checks him out every year."