South Burlington Police Officer Sarah Bellavance, 28, wakes up at her home in St. Albans after a busy night at the police department. Her shift goes until 1:15 a.m. typically, but she’d stayed a bit later after multiple calls came in, including a suspected aggravated assault.
Her four-legged partner, K9 Rush, snoozes in his open crate in a nearby room, hears her alarm and begins to whine at the door. He and his two dog brothers share a room separate from Bellavance’s bedroom. When she gets up, the dogs all follow her downstairs for breakfast.
As usual, Bellavance’s husband has already left for work, but the dogs follow her schedule. They are fed a balanced raw diet called Oma’s Pride — bone, organ, meat and vegetables.
After breakfast, the dogs go outside to use the bathroom.
Rush is a year-and-a-half-old Belgian Malinois, who was named for his general speediness, Bellavance says. He has two brothers: Rumble, a German Shepherd who is the same age, and Stig, a 6-year-old Vizsla.
Bellavance and her husband, Burlington Police Officer Jason Bellavance, also own two cats, two horses and 12 chickens. Their opposite schedules mean that someone is typically home with the animals.
Rumble had been in training to become Bellavance’s K9 partner, but six months in, she found out Rumble had an incurable elbow condition and needed surgery. A vet told her he wouldn’t have a very long career as a police K9, so instead, she adopted him as a new family pet.
Sarah Bellavance says she had initially been nervous that Rumble would get depressed when Rush began to accompany her to work instead. And at first, Rumble had appeared to be a bit sad. But now it doesn’t bother him, she says. He still walks with a limp sometimes, but he gets to enjoy the good life.
Sarah Bellavance spends about an hour relaxing with Rush and the other animals. They often watch television or snuggle on the couch.
“He’s a huge snugglebug when he gets home,” Bellavance says of Rush.
It’s true — and photos on his Instagram, the most popular social media account for any K9 in the state, show he isn’t picky either. He’ll snuggle with humans, his dog brothers, his cat siblings, or he’ll just cuddle by himself in a pile of blankets and pillows. Bellavance says his snuggliness is pretty typical for his breed.
Typically around this time, Rush goes outside with his dog and horse siblings and runs around the St. Albans property.
Today, Bellavance takes Rush and Rumble to Bombardier Park in Milton to meet me in a neutral area. Rush tends to be protective of his home, Bellavance explains.
Bellavance wears a knee-length black coat, white hat with a pom pom on top, and white and purple mitten. Her hair hangs down past her shoulders — a much different look than when she is on duty.
The dogs run, growl and wrestle with each other. Bellavance throws a few snowballs for them — attempting to fake them out at first, but they knew better. They dive to the ground to catch the snowballs, opening their mouths, but pop up confused after the “balls” disappear. Since Rush and Rumble are about the same age, playtime never seems to end for them.
But, when their mom gives a command, they almost always perk up and obey right away (sometimes, as with any dog, it takes a few times when Rush is off duty).
Both are trained to respond to German commands. Bellavance says this is so Rush is not responding to what would be commands spoken in general conversation and so suspects can’t give commands to him.
After about 45 minutes of playtime, Bellavance and her pups head back north so she and Rush can get ready for work.
Bellavance dons her South Burlington Police Department uniform and puts her hair up in a bun. Rush’s collar, which says his name and Bellavance’s phone number, gets switched out for one that says “Police K9.”
Bellavance says that as soon as Rush has his K9 collar on, he knows it’s time to go to work. Rush just finished drug school in April and patrol school in November.
Bellavance starts her commute to work from St. Albans in her police cruiser. She radios in to dispatch to tell them she’s on duty, even though her shift doesn’t technically begin until 4 p.m. She says this is so she can respond, if needed, to a call from any agency needing a police K9 since she mostly drives on Interstate 89 on her way to work.
Bellavance always knew she wanted to work with animals. She initially went to college in Colorado for animal science because she wanted to become a veterinarian. After one semester, she says, she didn’t want to continue pursuing that major because she didn’t enjoy the classes. She transferred to the University of Vermont after one year and eventually graduated with a sociology degree.
She wanted to go into law enforcement after having positive experiences dealing with a Burlington police officer after a close family member died. She has served on the force in South Burlington for more than five years.
“Obviously, I want to help people and create an impact on lives,” Bellavance says. “I don’t want the same job every single day.”
Bellavance came to the policing profession with the long-term goal of being a K9 officer.
“This is my passion,” she says.
South Burlington’s dispatcher asks Bellavance to respond as back-up for another officer who stopped a person suspected of driving with a suspended license. On her way, she gets called off because she is no longer needed.
Bellavance and Rush arrive at the South Burlington Police Department. Rush announces their arrival with a few barks.
Bellavance usually checks emails and gets her area assignment — east, south, or middle. She also typically checks in with her supervisor, Sgt. Ed Soychack. Then, Rush hops into the backseat of her cruiser and they begin traffic enforcement.
Her shift is unique for police officers since it straddles the morning and night shifts. She says this is so she can respond to as many calls that require K9 help as possible. At least once per week, Bellavance responds to help other agencies who need Rush’s skills, such as sniffing for drugs.
Rush does a quick search exercise in the snow outside the police department before he and Bellavance head out on the road. Bellavance throws several objects into the snow and asks him to find them. When he finds each one, he sits down to indicate he’s found it. This is a passive indication, Bellavance explains, that Rush has been taught to do, specifically in drug searches.
South Burlington Police K9 Rush conducts an exercise where he finds objects that his handler, Officer Sarah Bellavance, hid in the snow on Dec. 6, 2018.Elizabeth Murray, Free Press Staff Writer
Rush then goes to the bathroom on a pole outside the police department. Rush goes to the bathroom typically en route to the cruiser when it’s parked outside the building, or when he’s on his way back into the building.
Bellavance is assigned to the east corridor of the city — her favorite, she says. The east corridor includes parts of Williston Road and areas near the Burlington International Airport.
“It’s the busiest area,” Bellavance says.
On an iPad inside her cruiser, Valcour, the software system that many area police departments use to log incidents and information, illuminates Bellavance’s face as she checks to see whether she has any specific assignments and what other officers are doing. She does this in a parking lot or at a stop light.
After doling out some puppy kisses next to the headrest, Rush lays down in the back seat in his hammock. He usually naps for most of the time his human does traffic enforcement, unless the cruiser siren is sounding.
South Burlington police, including Bellavance, respond to a call on Joy Drive. A daycare provider suspects that parents who picked up their child were both high on marijuana, and one of them drove the family home.
Bellavance rushes down Shelburne Road during rush hour traffic with her lights and sirens going. She is practiced at weaving between cars while still traveling with urgency — part of her training at the police academy included driving in situations like this. She comes to enough of a stop at intersections to make sure people can see her passing through red lights.
When she arrives in the parking lot, she looks for a White Toyota Avalon with Vermont plates, but it’s no longer there. Other officers speaking on the radio say they will respond to the person’s home.
Meanwhile, Bellavance turns around to drive through Shaw’s parking lot. Sometimes people go to the grocery store before going home, she says.
Bellavance turns back around to go back to the daycare. She parks her cruiser and goes inside to speak to the daycare employees. Rush stays in the car.
A daycare employee tells Bellavance what she believes she observed — bloodshot eyes, unusual behavior by the parents. The woman’s supervisor is also present. Bellavance asks the employee whether she can write an official statement, and the woman says yes.
While waiting for the written statement, Bellavance receives word over the radio that the child’s father, who police believed was driving the car, was being taken into custody after police met him at his home.
A few weeks later, police announce they are bringing charges against the man: driving under the influence of drugs, driving while his license was suspended and cruelty to a child. He will appear in court in February.
Bellavance gets back into her cruiser to head back to the police station and drop off the statement. Rush, in the backseat, greets her by licking her face over her car seat shoulder.
While driving back toward the office, another call comes over the scanner for police to respond to a possible domestic situation on Dorset Street. Bellavance asks over the scanner if they need her to respond, but she is told no.
Bellavance and Rush arrive back at the police station to drop off the statement. She hands it to the officer, then heads to the dispatch room where she typically eats dinner. Since her shift is unique, she eats with the dispatcher because other officers are not eating at the same time.
Bellavance, about to stick her pasta dinner into the microwave, is called out to a two-car crash on Williston Road. She quickly puts her dinner back into the fridge, and heads back to her cruiser with Rush leading the way down the hallway.
She puts on her lights and siren again, and Rush paces in the backseat.
“He gets excited when he hears sirens,” she says.
This behavior is a side-effect from simulated apprehension exercises Rush experienced during training at the academy, Bellavance explains. It’s “classical conditioning,” she says.
Bellavance arrives at the scene and asks officers and fire personnel how she can help.
The rush-hour crash on the highway overpass on Williston Road was caused when a woman rear-ended another car and her airbag went off. Officers on scene are already interviewing the drivers when Bellavance arrives.
Police cars and firetrucks are lined up behind and to the side of the crash to act as a buffer from other cars who are passing through the area. Bellavance is asked to act as “extra lights” in that line to extend the buffer a safe enough distance.
Bellavance waits in her cruiser while other officers and fire officials work to clean up the minor crash. Eventually, a tow truck is called.
Bellavance is told she can leave the scene after about 10 minutes.
Bellavance and Rush arrive back at the police department. She attempts to heat up her frozen dinner for a second time, and this time she’s successful. She sits down to dig into store-bought tomato sauce pasta and meatballs.
“That’s what stinks about this job is not being able to eat when you want,” Bellavance says. She adds that she keeps snacks and water in her cruiser for times when calls become too busy.
Like any dog who smells human food, Rush begs for scraps. He stares at his mom with a look that says, “I never get fed.” I take pity on him and (with Bellavance’s permission) give Rush the final bite of my English muffin with peanut butter. With one swift movement, it’s gone.
Dispatcher Mike Goslin is in the dispatchers’ office at the time, and in between calls, he plays with Rush. Rush performs tricks, including standing on his hind legs, to obtain more treats from Goslin.
Bellavance and Rush head back out on the road.
Bellavance stops for gas.
Bellavance stops at Maplefields at the corner of Kennedy Drive and Williston Road for coffee. She goes there fairly regularly while she’s on shift.
“The coffee there is really good,” she says.
While paying for her coffee, Bellavance greets the man behind the counter, who recognizes her.
Bellavance, back in her cruiser, is called to a crash with no injuries on Duval Street. The dispatcher explains a rental car was involved, so the parties requested that police respond for insurance purposes.
Bellavance arrives at the scene — an unusual place for a crash call, she says, because it’s in the middle of a neighborhood.
The people involved in the crash are standing on either side of the quiet street. Bellavance approaches to speak with them and collect licenses and registrations. She checks the damage on the two cars. There is only a small scratch on the rental car that was parked and hit after another car backed into it.
Bellavance runs their licenses and registrations and begins to create a crash report that the people involved will later be able to provide to their respective insurance companies. Per police department policy, Bellavance will need to have this ready for them by the end of her shift, she says.
Bellavance leaves the scene to drive the streets of South Burlington. While officers are in field training, they need to memorize the names and locations of the streets, she says. Needless to say, she really knows her way around.
One of the places she regularly checks at night is the parking garage next to the University Mall. Especially after the mall closes, she says it’s typically suspicious when a car is parked all by itself on one of the higher levels of the garage — particularly if there are people inside.
“Why do you need to go so high up if there’s so much parking below?” she explains. She adds, “It’s not illegal, but it’s strange.”
This time around, though, nothing seems too out of the ordinary, she says.
Bellavance cruises around the back of the Anchorage Inn on Dorset Street. She says she tries to be proactive about being seen — especially in spots off the beaten path —to deter criminal activity.
“I usually go through here because every once in a while, they have some drug problems,” Bellavance explains.
Bellavance comes back to the police station to sign out a radar gun. Rush stays in the car this time since Bellavance plans to go right back out on the road.
After returning to her car, Bellavance tests the radar device. She strikes a metal object on her steering wheel, which is supposed to mimic the sound a car at a certain speed would make.
The gun she has chosen doesn’t work, so she goes back inside to get another. That one isn’t working either, so she decides to go watch traffic without the radar gun.
Bellavance parks in a parking lot along Williston Road to watch for traffic infractions. Some snow flakes begin to fall, which she says would have messed with the radar gun anyways.
Another call comes over Bellavance’s radio. This time it’s for assistance requested by the Vermont State Police for a BOL (“be on the lookout” alert) for a car driving southbound in the northbound lane of Interstate 89.
The state police had received two reports so far of the car, which had been spotted near exit 16 in Colchester. Bellavance headed out to the highway and parked her cruiser in the median near exit 14 in South Burlington.
The dispatcher put out an “all clear” about five minutes later — state police believed the car may have noticed it was heading the wrong way and turned around.
Bellavance and Rush arrive back at the police station for roll call.
Rush bounces down the hallway of the police department, looking back from time to time to make sure Bellavance is following him. He greets other officers in his path.
Rush shows off one of the tricks he’s learning — he grabs a piece of paper off the table and brings it to Bellavance. But, then he wants to play with it, so the paper gets crumpled.
Bellavance gives Rush one of his toys instead. When Rush was a puppy, he was more motivated by food, but after training at the academy, Rush has become very toy- or play-motivated, Bellavance says.
She has to be careful about when to give him toys too because he will just want to play for the rest of the shift, she says.
In the roll call room before roll call begins, Rush stands at attention and stares at his ball until someone kicks it or throws it. Once he catches it, he shoves it into another officer’s lap to continue playtime.
Roll call is delayed because Bellavance and a few other officers — including one in training — get called out to IDX Drive for an alarm going off at VHB, a civil engineering firm.
Bellavance arrives at IDX Drive and meets up with the other two officers who responded. Rush stays in the car, chewing on his ball.
The three officers spend a few minutes trying to locate or contact a security guard as the outside doors to the building are locked. They knock on the doors and ring the doorbell until one officer catches the attention of a security person within the building.
Once inside, the officers go up the elevator to the second floor where the alarm was sounding. Bellavance pulls on the door handle at one entrance to make sure it’s locked and ends up accidentally setting the alarm off again. She speaks over her radio to dispatch warning that the second alarm was her accidental doing.
They look for signs of forced entry, but find none. The alarm eventually stops sounding.
“Probably just the cleaners,” one officer says, venturing a guess as to what may have set off the original alarm.
Bellavance gets back into her cruiser to leave the scene. Rush, still in the backseat with his ball places it on her shoulder while she’s driving back to the office, his eyes pleading, “Play?” She laughs as he turns his playtime plea to me.
Bellavance returns to the police department and she and other officers gather in the roll call room with Sgt. Gerard Eno. Rush chews on his ball in the back of the room.
The officers review who is in which area and the incidents that have occurred or are still open that night.
Rush is required to do 16 hours of training per month with Bellavance, but she says the two try to do at least half an hour of training per day with the South Burlington police.
Bellavance recruits another officer to do a building search exercise with Rush in the empty upstairs section of the department. The other officer remains hidden behind a door while Rush sniffs at the doors and tries to locate her. He sniffs for human scent, Bellavance says.
South Burlington Police K9 Rush is instructed by Officer Sarah Bellavance to find the human hiding behind the door on Dec. 6, 2018.Elizabeth Murray, Free Press Staff Writer
Bellavance says that normally, the person playing the “bad guy” would come out wearing a bite suit or bite arm and Rush would practice biting them, but she said because the officer is in uniform, Rush would not do that part of the exercise this time. She never wants Rush to think it’s okay to bite an officer, she explained.
Instead, when Rush determines which door Cpl. Karen Chevalier is behind, he sits down. When Bellavance asks him to confirm that he’s sure, he barks.
Rush visits his “favorite dispatcher,” Michele Shepard before heading back out on the road. Michelle plays tug of war with Rush for a few minutes before having to take another call.
In the dispatch office, stockings hang along one of the desk dividers, each one with the name of a dispatcher on it. Rush also has his own stocking.
Bellavance and Rush head back out on the road to do more patrolling.
Back in the University Mall parking lot, Bellavance spots a car on one of the top levels of the garage all by itself with people inside. The mall is closed.
Bellavance, growing suspicious, continues to drive, but circles back around to see if the car is still there. It is, so she parks a short distance away and runs the plate number.
In the meantime, four people get out of the car and stand outside it. Rush then begins to bark as one of the men comes over to Bellavance’s window.
The man asks if the mall is closed, and Bellavance tells him yes. The man then thanks Bellavance and he walks back toward the car. The passengers then all get back into the car and the car drives away.
“Hmm, that’s suspicious,” Bellavance says.
Bellavance says she feels like the man may have already known the mall was closed and just came over to try to ward off police suspicion. She decides to follow the car from a distance to see where it goes.
The car turns into Price Chopper parking lot in Burlington. Bellavance decides to stop following it since it crossed city lines.
Bellavance continues driving around on patrol.
While driving along Williston Road, Bellavance sees a cyclist riding in the center of one of two lanes heading toward Williston. The cyclist is riding slowly, dressed in dark colors and does not appear to have a light on his bike. Bellavance slows down to ask the man to ride on the sidewalk for his safety.
Bellavance and Rush come back to the station so Bellavance can spend the rest of her shift writing reports.
Rush brings his ball into the officers’ room and tries to goad Officer Kelsey Monroe into playing. She gives in pretty easily, tossing or kicking his ball.
“He brings a lot of joy to the office environment,” Monroe says.
When Monroe has to respond to a call, Rush tries to get Bellavance to play. Bellavance eventually takes the toy away from Rush because he is being too insistent and she has to complete her work.
Rush eventually falls asleep on the floor near Bellavance’s desk until it is time to leave.
Bellavance and Rush go back out on patrol for a short time. A mental health call on Shelburne Road comes in, and other officers respond. Bellavance stays on duty, staying in the Williston Road area, in case the officers need her assistance.
Bellavance goes off duty a bit later than usual. Once the mental health call is cleared, Bellavance and Rush drive to Interstate 89 and and head back home to St. Albans.
After snow earlier in the night, the roads are slick, so Bellavance takes it a bit slower on her way home.
Bellavance and Rush arrive home.
Rush grabs his favorite blanket and runs around the living room with it in his mouth. The other dogs wake up.
Rush and the other dogs are a balanced raw diet dinner.
The dogs go outside to use the bathroom once more before bedtime.
Bellavance, Rush, and the other dogs head to bed. Rush has a choice of either his dog bed in his open kennel or the couch, but he typically chooses his kennel.
“It’s as close as he can get to me,” Bellavance says.
Contact Elizabeth Murray at 651-4835 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.