TWINSBURG – A setback in a black German Shepherd’s life wound up being a boon to Twinsburg’s Community Emergency Response Team.
Chogan, who retired in May from the CERT and was honored by the city July 15, was originally trained to be a service dog, said James Zammikiel, Chogan’s human. The canine had undergone training through Circle Tail near Cincinnati, which provides trained service dogs for those with disabilities at no cost to the individual, using prisoners to help with the training.
The trouble came when they tried to adopt him out, Zammikiel said: the dog had trouble bonding with his first placements.
"Shepherds are funny, they will select you," Zammikiel said. "They are very unit-oriented."
Zammikiel said he went to Circle Tail with his older dog, Kern, another black German Shepherd, and one of his daughters in the hopes of adopting Chogan or another dog. Chogan immediately bonded with them.
"The staff warned us before we went down that they weren’t sure how he would respond," Zammikiel said. "They were amazed was how fast he went up to us."
Even before joining CERT, Chogan was a common sight through Twinsburg.
Zammikiel said he, Kern and Chogan often joined now retired city naturalist Stanley Stine on walks through the Twinsburg parks "before the park lands were really laid out."
"We went out with him on all his hikes," he said.
Chogan, Kern and Zammikiel also frequently joined with Jack Williams, the late dog warden, on walks.
"We would go out and have a fine time running our dogs," he said.
Zammikiel, who volunteers with the CERT, approached the volunteer organization about training Chogan to work with them.
"Steve Bosso [assistant fire chief and CIO with the Twinsburg Fire Department] took a chance on us," Zammikiel said. "He was the only one who said ‘Sure, why not?’"
Bosso said that Chogan was a good addition to CERT, which is made up of volunteers who assist first responders at the Twinsburg Fire Department in the event of an emergency. They also are sometimes called to assist in other, non-emergeny community events.
"Chogan was an excellent public relations tool for CERT, as well as the fire and police departments," Bosso said. "Kids flocked to him at every event."
However, Chogan also could get impatient with Bosso during the assistant chief’s longer classroom sessions.
"If he was in the classroom while I was teaching, he’d groan if I went over an hour of lecture," Bosso said. "His way of saying ‘it’s time to go outside!’"
Because of his previous training, working with Chogan on search and rescue skills went quickly, Zammikiel said.
"He spent at least 16 months in the prison program, so he already had a lot of skills," Zammikiel said.
Unlike a police dog, which is trained to track by using scent, Chogan was trained primarily with voice commands. From his training, Zammikiel said, he knew commands such as "right," "left" and "over here."
There are several advantages with having a canine to assist in a search, Zammikiel said.
"The amount of ground Chogan can cover is a lot more than people can," he said. "He’s faster and can get through undergrowth more easily. He also could help pull someone across the ground, rather than me having to find another person."
Another skill Chogan has is his calming presence, Zammikiel said.
"He was the gentle giant that has calmed lost and frightened children," he said.
For example, at a Fourth of July concert in Lakewood that he attended, a little girl had gotten separated from her parents in the crowd. The child made her way to the stage, crying and hysterical.
"She was beside herself," he said. "So I went up to her and asked her, ‘You think it’s loud?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Are there a lot of people? ‘Yeah.’"
Zammikiel then indicated Chogan. "’You think he hears better? You think he might be scared?’"
The little girl agreed that might be the case, so she put her arms around Chogan to ‘console’ him. By the time the parents found them, the child had gone from crying to completely calm.
Another instance was at the Cost of Freedom, where many veterans flocked to Chogan and interacted with him, Zammikiel said.
"There was one in particular, a grandfather who came with wife," Zammikiel said. "He started petting Chogan, and then he started talking about his service in Vietnam, and him having to kill someone."
The veteran continued to tell his story, adding that he had a dog like Chogan in Vietnam.
"His wife had never heard these stories," Zammikiel said. "He was talking like that 18 to 20-year-old kid in the trenches. He probably never talked about this with anyone."
So, what are Chogan’s plans in retirement? Sleeping, chasing the squirrels out of the bird feeder, and chasing his Frisbee at the dog park.
"That’s his favorite toy at the dog park, and that was his training toy while doing search," Zammikiel said.
Another activity Chogan likes at the dog park is watching – and occasionally supervising – the puppies.
"He loves watching the puppies play, but if they get too rough, he will go over and knock them apart," Zammikiel said. "It’s like he’s saying, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ He’ll go go over and make sure the down puppy is OK. ‘Oh, are you OK? Time to get up and play again!’ He’s very much like the playground monitor. It’s hysterical."
Kern has since died, and the Zammikiel has adopted a new dog, Max.
Zammikiel, who plans to remain with CERT, said he had hoped to train Max as a search and rescue dog but noted Max "does not like loud noises, and is not happy when it’s busy."
Bosso said that at present time, there are no concrete plans to find another canine to follow in Chogan’s pawprints.
"We have no plans as a team to acquire a dog, but if a member would be interested in having a dog trained in search and rescue, we’d certainly support that as an organization," Bosso said. "Most K9 teams are actually comprised of dogs paired with their owner/handler. The dog goes home with the handler and lives as a pet while waiting for deployment."
For details on CERT, contact Bosso at 330-963-6256, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Information on CERT also can be found at mytwinsburg.com online.
Reporter April Helms can be reached at email@example.com