K-9 grad waiting for order to stay

After nearly three months of training and a few political bumps along the way, Fanto the dog is poised to become the newest member of the Hillsboro police force - assuming he can fetch the final okay from selectmen next week.
Fanto and Officer Nick Hodgen were among the 10 pairs of dogs and trainers that graduated yesterday from the Manchester Police K-9 Academy at Camp Carpenter. The 2-year-old German shepherd sat calmly in a line of wagging tails and barking classmates as he waited to receive his diploma before an audience of clapping friends and officers, who smiled and snapped photos.
The K-9 school included months of training that focused on obedience, verbal commands, agility and scent-tracking skills - the latter of which Fanto is especially good at, according to Hodgen. With driving time, the duo's days typically stretched between 10 and 11 hours; then Fanto went home with Hodgen and his family each night.
"It feels really awesome now that we finished this," Hodgen said after the ceremony. "When we first got here, I had no idea what I was doing. We've come a long way."
There have been a few setbacks since training began in March: Fanto, who was born in Hungary, is actually the third dog Hodgen has worked with. (The others either had "too much energy" or "not enough" and Hodgen said it's critical to match the personalities of dog and trainer.)
An even bigger obstacle, though, was the controversy the dog generated at town meeting this year. Voters slashed significant funds from the operating budget, ultimately forcing many departments, including the police, to get by on their 2008 budgets. The department budgeted nearly $6,000 to buy the dog and for training before the vote and - because school started around the same time - asked selectmen for the go-ahead by e-mail.
According to Hillsboro police Chief David Roarick, two selectmen said yes, and one said no. At town meeting, when discussion about the already-purchased dog came up, several people accused the police department of getting the dog without permission. Roarick said that was not the case.
"In question was the overall town budget. The only vote taken on the floor was to reduce the budget from 2009 to 2008 figures," Roarick said. "We're at 2008 figures now and making things work."
In the months after town meeting, selectmen told the police that Fanto would have to be returned, but "the board has never decided as a whole and we haven't gotten any clear direction from them," he said.
"We're at the point where a decision needs to be made," he said, adding that residents mostly expressed support for the dog and even offered up donations. "The town has invested a lot of time and money on this and the dog would certainly enhance our capabilities."
Hillsboro has since received stimulus funds to boost law enforcement efforts, and the department is hoping selectmen okay police association money for the dog, said Town Administrator John Stetser. Additional costs, like leashes and equipment, are minimal.
"The police chief has come up with a plan to pay for the dog's cost out of the police association's money. He's going to present the request to the selectmen this week," Stetser said. "I'm not sure how they'll react. They felt that the dog should not cost the town money."
Still, Stetser said, the issue has brought "more jokes than the dog has hairs on its back" and now that so much time and money have been invested in Fanto's training, "it's kind of foolish to keep beating it to death. The police will make good use of the dog."
Teachers who handed out the diplomas yesterday said they were very proud of Fanto, and called Hodgen "the hardest working officer in the academy." Despite a late start and challenges along the way, the pair pulled it all together, they said.
As for Fanto's future, Hodgen "really hopes" the selectmen will approve the chief's proposal and said he's even willing to put in extra time when the dog is needed in the field.

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