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Officer Donato (Danny) Palma is in the midst of training East Haven Police Department’s newest K9, Enzo, at Superior Tactics. (Photo courtesy of the East Haven Police Department )
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In late January, Donato Palma’s routine changed drastically over the course of a weekend. Donato, known to many as Danny, has been a police officer with the East Haven Police Department since 2014 and was recently the department’s second K9 officer.
“I put in for it and we had an interview process with the top three candidates sent to interview with breeder [Grasso] and trainer [Superior Tactics] and they made a recommendation,” says Donato. “They were looking for someone who’s motivated because it’s a huge commitment and takes a huge amount of dedication with doing a lot of things on your own and on your off-time. There are some sacrifices, but on the same token, it’s very rewarding.”
On a Friday in January, Donato received a call from Chief Ed Lennon that the new puppy would be arriving after the weekend. While Donato was hoping for a little more time so he could involve the community in the naming process, he was excited to meet his new dog.
The dog—a German shepherd who was imported from the Netherlands and began his training at Grasso in Shelton—was 18 months old in January. Donato spent the weekend discussing name options with colleagues and friends, finally decided on Enzo, inspired by a late uncle Vincenzo, and a friend’s dog’s name.
The pair are now in the midst of a 14-week training program at Superior Tactics, which also trained Ace, East Haven Police Department’s other K9, who is handled by Officer Kevin McGuire. Seeing McGuire and Ace’s work is part of the reason Donato applied for the K9 position.
“Kevin knew that was what he wanted to do, and in the department, I’ve summoned them for assistance more than anyone else,” says Donato. “Watching them work together inspired me, and at the end of the day, you get to bring your dog to work every day.”
For now, going to work means full-time training at the facility in Newtown, a change from Donato’s regular second shift of patrol work. The training program is 14 weeks and runs at an accelerated pace as the six other trainees are all second- or third-time handlers.
“It’s fantastic because I not only have the regular trainers, but everybody else in the academy is experienced so I’m getting input from everybody,” says Donato. “It’s almost like being on field training and being able to learn from many different people and styles. They all have something to teach and are always willing to lend a helping hand.”
Enzo had been introduced to some training before joining Donato, but now the pair is working on a variety of cross-training activities. After graduation, Enzo will be trained in narcotics detection, apprehension, and tracking and searches.
While Donato and Enzo will have completed that section of training, their work is never done. After graduation, there are twice monthly mandatory trainings as well as continued work both on and off duty.
“I want to be the best I could be and I want him to be the best he could be, and it’s all repetition,” says Donato. “The mandatory training is not enough—you have to be on it every single day. My goal is to stay on top of it and earn the reputation where if me and Enzo show up on the scene, we’re going to get the guy.”
While Donato has always loved dogs and his family had dogs growing up, this is the first time he has actively worked on training a dog. He and his brother did work with their family’s bird dog, training it on their family’s farmland in North Branford.
“I’ve always loved dogs,” says Donato. “Growing up, we had a pigeon coop and we’d train the dog to flush them out. I haven’t had much training experience, but it’s good because you’re coming in with an open mind and learning from experienced people.”
Donato learned quickly that training goes far beyond the repetition. After the first few days at home, Donato felt he had a good handle on the training. Once they started their official training, Donato realized what a challenge his new job would be.
“At the house, he listens very well, but he’d been at the Academy before and knew it was playtime so when we got there, he wanted nothing to do with me,” says Donato. “His obedience was great at the house, but there, he completely disregarded me. The instructor took me aside and said it was normal. At the completion of week three [March 6], the progress has been tremendous. There’s been a huge improvement in our bonding and obedience.”
Outside of training at the Academy, Donato spends a lot of time exposing Enzo to different environments, taking him into different stores and walking on different surfaces like concrete, hardwood, and even treadmills. Being in so many public places, Donato is also learning his role as a handler.
“I am sure to keep him on a tight leash—it’s a huge responsibility when you have an animal at the end of the leash,” says Donato. “It’s tough because I want to be friendly when people approach, but at the end of the day, we don’t let people touch them, so I have to explain that they can’t pet him.”
Donato is looking forward to getting back into his role as a patrol officer with Enzo by his side. He notes that aside from bringing Enzo to work with him each night, his regular shift duties will be the same.
What will change, though, is that Donato and Enzo will be called in should there be a suspicion of drugs in a car that’s pulled over or if a suspect gets away on foot. Donato still lives in North Branford, only minutes from East Haven, so he and Enzo are also on call when they aren’t on patrol.
“I’m the closest handler so if something comes up, they’re going to call me,” says Donato. “I’m a very proactive cop. I like apprehensions and drug work. I like to go after the big fish and a dog is a good tool to have.”
When Donato is not on duty, he spends his spare time working on training exercises with Enzo and continuing renovations on his house, a skill he learned from his uncle, who he worked when he was young both landscaping and renovating houses. He also enjoys working on cars—something he learned from his father.
“My family taught me to do everything yourself—I’m a huge do-it-yourselfer,” says Donato, who also enjoys boating, jetskiing, traveling, learning, and spending time with his friends. “I come from a family of immigrants who came here with nothing and I learned you have to go out and work for things. It won’t just be handed to you.”
Donato is happy that he is able to live in the community where he grew up, a community that inspired him to go into law enforcement. Through finding a career path with the East Haven Police Department, Donato found his way to his position as a K9 officer
“Growing up in North Branford, as teenagers, we’d hang out in parking lots and after interacting with some of the police officers, made me realize that was the way i wanted to go,” says Donato. “When I started with the police department, I didn’t know what path I wanted to take, but now I’ve had Enzo for a month and a half and he’s my best friend. It’s a whole different ballgame.”
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