NORTH SMITHFIELD – Police Lt. Jared Salinaro still loves his job, but it’s just not as easy coming to work as it used to be.
That’s because he has to leave the house without his longtime partner, Vasko the police dog.
Vasko was a staple of the patrol division for more than six years, with a sable snout as familiar to police officers in Woonsocket and other Valley towns as it was here. Though he’s still eager to work, Vasko’s been forced into retirement because Salinaro, his exclusive handler, was recently promoted into a position that no longer keeps him tethered to a police cruiser.
“He won’t work for another handler,” Salinaro says.
Inspired by his uncle, Providence Police Officer Louis Salinaro, who’s used dogs on the job ever since his nephew can remember, Salinaro began searching for a canine partner to join the NSPD more than six years ago.
Vasko, a purebred German Shepherd, was already about a year old when they met at a Connecticut kennel that specializes in acquiring police dogs from European stock, says Salinaro.
Look at any classified ad under ‘pets for sale’ and you can probably find a shepherd for a few hundred bucks, but a dog with Vasko’s refined lineage would probably run about $8,000 today, says Salinaro. He was actually born in Czechoslovakia, and both his parents were top notch police dogs.
“European shepherds have a better bloodline than American dogs,” says Salinaro. “They’re not as inbred and they’re healthier. Hip problems can get pretty rough on these dogs when they get older.”
There were at least a half dozen shepherds to look over the day Salinaro went up to pick one out from the kennel. He had a good idea what he was looking for – something called “ball drive” and high marks on the courage test. Ball drive may sound strange, but it’s basically a way of guessing whether a dog is motivated and energetic by watching whether he’s interested in chasing balls and other toys.
Then he was told to forget about picking out a dog.
“You’re not going to pick this dog,” someone told him. “This dog’s going to pick you.”
It’s still a hard-to-define transaction for Salinaro, but he says the predicted chemistry of dog selection proved to be spot-on. Vasko, who was named after his father, just wasn’t going to let Salinaro go home without him.
“We just kind of met on that level,” he says.
Though Vasko didn’t cost quite as much as he would today when Salinaro took him home, the 36-year-old policeman says the town didn’t pay for him, and has never pitched in for the cost of upkeep.
As a member of a comparatively small suburban police force, Salinaro knew the town didn’t have the budget to support a K-9 unit, so he raised money from private donors. Dr. Zahir Shah, a local internist who runs an urgent care clinic a couple of blocks away from the police station, has been a big supporter, and Stop & Shop has kicked in with grub – a substantial commitment for a hard-working, 100-pounder.
While he may not cost the town a dime, Salinaro says Vasko is worth his weight in gold as a law enforcement professional. Not surprisingly, his main investigative attribute is his nose.
As a dog, it was pretty good to start with. But after extensive and specialized training early in his career, Vasko has become a kind of super-sniffer, capable of rooting out heroin from secret caches in motor vehicles and finding humans lost in the woods.
“Once he found a whole family that was hiding in the woods,” says Salinaro. “They were hiding because they believed they were getting shot at.”
Using his hefty bulk, Vasko also knows how to take down and subdue an individual who is on the run.
Reading from a sheet of paper in the canine equivalent of Vasko’s personnel file (he also has a badge and a German passport), Salinaro says Vasko is credited with more than 270 arrests during his career, as well as the seizure of more than six pounds of marijuana and 433 grams of cocaine and heroin. The drugs originated, in part, from Woonsocket and other neighboring towns, where police have regularly called on Vasko to put his high-caliber nostrils to work in the service of law and order.
Sometimes Vasko doesn’t have to work very hard to find drugs at a motor vehicle stop. All he has to do is show up.
“A lot of people just give it up,” says Salinaro. “They know they can’t beat the dog.”
As he romped about a conference room at police headquarters recently, circling a table loaded with new black leather jackets for the rank and file, it was obvious that Vasko is still a playful and perky dog. But the transformation is real: Vasko, no longer a police dog, but beloved personal pet.
That doesn’t mean he has to like it.
“In a little part of him, it’s upsetting that’s he not going to work anymore,” says Salinaro. “He’s upset that he doesn’t get to come with me anymore.”