While most members of police departments spend a majority of their time working with people to help others, one officer is also an active member and instructor with search and rescue dogs.

Sgt. Erica Vieira came to the University of Rhode Island in 1988, first as an officer before she became a sergeant in 2007, but she has worked with dogs for several years. She began her work with dogs as a caretaker for a wildlife sanctuary, where she had her dogs help her patrol the area to help keep people off. Vieira also has had her own search and rescue dog, Maxwell, by her side for the last nine years.

She got involved with search and rescue dogs around the time of 9/11.

“I felt helpless,” Vieira said. “It [was] like ‘yeah, I’m a police officer but what can I do?’”

She then began going out to search and rescue. Vieira took the classes that were mandatory by the state to become certified. She also completed some training in the Berkshire Mountains, as people do search and rescue differently in different places.

Vieira was a member of two different teams before forming her own nonprofit last May, called New England Canine Search and Rescue. The nonprofit serves Rhode Island and Connecticut and has water cadaver dogs, who search waters for missing people, land cadaver dogs, who search land for missing people, and area search dogs, who can find people both dead and alive. The nonprofit also goes to schools and fairs to help teach kids what to do and what not to do if they ever get lost.

In addition to participating in search and rescues, Vieira is also an instructor for the International Police Work Dog Association and for National Search Dog Alliance, where she helps trains dogs in area search, as well as disaster search and rescue.

One big project Vieira is working on is a disaster training facility that would be on one of URI’s campuses. She said there is currently no place in New England to certify disaster dogs, so this would be the first. There would be two parts to the facility: the first part would be using a location to train dogs and their handlers for disasters, and the second part would be a building for animal science. She hopes to take 25 dogs from shelters and train them as all different kinds of service dogs at these programs.

The students themselves would train the dogs and one dog would be donated a semester and the rest could be sold, hopefully at a discount, Vieira said. She added that they would also try and find homes for dogs that failed the program.

“Here’s what you have to look at: Who’s it going to affect?” Vieira said. “All the people that need service animals and their relatives, all those people like me that drive hundreds and hundreds of miles to certify their dogs in disaster, the shelter people and the animal loves.”

Vieira is also in the process of bringing a K9 unit to the URI Police Department. She has already volunteered her dog to the program but wants to have three in the unit. Vieira also works with Therapy Dog International and wants to include therapy dogs in the Police K9 program as a care and comfort dogs for crime victims.

 

“We have to train and it’s hard to train by yourself,” she said. “The most important thing with the dogs is obedience and practicing their skills.”