PETERSBURG – Next month, Police Officer Michael Babukovic is getting a new partner.
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He has neither met this partner nor knows anything about their character or background. The only thing he knows is that the partner has a nose for the business.
Not to mention four legs. And a tail. And a way to charm any situation in which they find themselves.
That’s right. The 17-year veteran of the Petersburg Police Department is getting a dog … but not just any dog.
Babukovic is the first Petersburg patrol officer to receive a partner through the Canine Companions program, an organization that pairs service dogs with people with physical or other needs. It also pairs the dogs with agencies such as police departments and school systems to bring a calming effect to otherwise stressful situations such as a criminal investigation or a student’s emotional episode.
“I love dogs. My wife and I have three of them,” he said. “When (Police Chief Travis Christian) said we would be doing the program, I did a little research into it, and I thought that would be something great for me.”
The canine companions are being paid for through Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s quarterly practice of donating a portion of his annual gubernatorial salary to charitable causes across Virginia.
On Friday, Youngkin and his wife, Suzanne, presented a check for $43,750 that will cover three years of veterinary and other services for two dogs in Petersburg. The check was delivered at a ceremony inside the Petersburg Family YMCA on Madison Street.
On the front row of the audience Friday were several service dogs either trained by the CC organization or in the midst of training. While the hourlong ceremony went on, these dogs either sat quietly beside their owners or took a short snooze.
As the governor spoke, Hobbes – a service dog with the Chesterfield County Police Department – rolled onto his side and slept at the feet of his owner, Police Corporal Laura Kay.
How do the canines help?
Graduates of the Canine Companions program are trained to assist individuals with physical or emotional limitations in their everyday lives. It could be anything from helping to open a refrigerator door to calming them amid a health crisis.
The dogs also are used by police departments at crime or accident scenes, particularly where children are involved. Investigators and victim/witness advocates use them to reduce angst among victims of violent crime due to the overall calming effect a dog often brings.
Kay had many success stories to share about Hobbes, who not only is her partner but is also her family pet. As a certified service dog, Hobbes is free to go anywhere his human partner can go, including into the courtroom.
In one instance, a rape victim stopped in mid-testimony to hug Hobbes when she burst into tears. In another case, a juvenile overcome by emotion during an interview was comforted when Hobbes reached over and placed his paw on the kid’s hand. Kay recalled anytime that youth became antsy, Hobbes was right there to help him through it.
“Hobbes can be called on any day or night,” she said.
And it is not just the victims who benefit. Kay’s fellow officers are always glad to see Hobbes come in the office.
“I walk in and take him off his leash, and the first thing he does is go up to everyone and greet them,” she said. “It’s pretty common to see people in full suits getting down in the floor with him and detectives playing ‘Fetch’ in the office.
“His mark on the community is apparent, one paw print at a time,” Kay said, beaming as she looked down at Hobbes as he lay beside the podium.
Petersburg Mayor Sam Parham, who attended the ceremony, called it “a huge day in Petersburg” with the advent of the program.
“It’s a welcome addition here,” Parham said, “and I’m going to advocate as much as I can for not just getting with Police Department but parents with our schools dealing with the whole mental health issues that are complicating things not just here in Petersburg, all across the commonwealth.”
He added, “There are things that we have to do here in Petersburg which are very creative that will make a huge difference. You just don’t know how many lives we can save just by having K9 companions here.”
Youngkin said he and his wife chose the Canine Companions program because of the “profound impact” the dogs have made in their service.
“Stress causes knock-on effects, and these dogs relieve it,” Youngkin said, adding that he would like to see the second Petersburg dog be used in the public-school system.
He even had another idea for where these dogs could be used.
“I’d like to have a companion dog with me when the General Assembly starts (Jan. 10),” he said. “We could get so much done.”
After the check presentation, the Youngkins and others took several minutes to pose for pictures with Canine Companions organization officials, police officers – and of course, the dogs. One could almost sense that the photo opportunities served a dual purpose as just about everyone – including the governor – seized the moment to pet and hug the dogs, who were only too happy to return the affection.
Babukovic said he already has gone through “a little training” in preparation for his new partner. Next month, he will go to New York where he will meet his dog for the first time.
Babukovic was asked if the other three dogs in his family had been prepped for the new arrival. He smiled a bit sheepishly.
“They don’t know yet,” he grinned.
Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is an award-winning journalist who covers breaking news, government and politics. Reach him at [email protected] or on X (formerly known as Twitter) at @BAtkinson_PI.
Kristi K. Higgins aka The Social Butterfly, an award-winning columnist, is the trending topics and food Q&A reporter at The Progress-Index voted the 2022 Tri-Cities Best of the Best Social Media Personality. Have a news tip on local trends or businesses? Contact Kristi (she, her) at [email protected], follow @KHiggins_PI on X and@socialbutterflykristi on Instagram.