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Customer claimed dog burned at New Canaan K-9 cop’s training facility in 2021, complaint shows

NAUGATUCK — A former customer claimed his dog returned home last year from a 20-day program at a training facility — operated by a suspended New Canaan police K-9 officer accused of animal cruelty — noticeably underweight and appeared to have been burned, according to the report.

The complaint prompted a July 2021 inspection of Black Rock Canines that revealed employees were withholding water from dogs as a form of punishment, according to state documents.

However, officials said significant “red flags” were not discovered until a few weeks ago when current and former employees alerted authorities to dogs being killed and buried at the Naugatuck facility where explosives were also being illegally used and stored, according to court documents, leading to the arrests of New Canaan K-9 officer David Rivera Jr. and his business partner.

Naugatuck Police Chief Colin McAllister said his department previously received a few complaints, which were forwarded to the state Animal Control Division under the state Department of Department of Agriculture.

“There was nothing rising to the threshold of us wanting to do an investigation,” McAllister said.

Rivera and employee Daniel Luna have been accused of euthanizing dogs they designated as “untrainable” by shooting the animals as they ate and then burying their remains on the Hunters Mountain Road property, according to an arrest warrant.

Rivera and Luna were each charged last week with animal cruelty. In a separate arrest a few days earlier, Stratford police charged Rivera with illegal possession of explosives and firearms after the Black Rock Canines investigation led to a search of the police officer’s home.

Rivera, who has been suspended from the New Canaan Police Department, is free on a combined $400,000 bond.

State Animal Control Division documents show an inspection of Black Rock Canines, prompted by a complaint made to the Naugatuck Police Department in July 2021, revealed several violations. The documents show staff was withholding food to train the dogs that were also being kept in cages that were too small.

The complaint was filed by a man who said his black Labrador, Scout, lost a noticeable amount of weight while she stayed at the facility for a 20-day training period in May 2021, the documents show.

The man checked on the dog and could see she was losing weight and had a sore on her paw, documents said. But when he picked her up after the training was complete, “Scout looked very scared, smelled bad and the sores were now bleeding,” according to the complaint. Both of her ears were infected, her throat was swollen and she had burn marks, the complaint stated.

The July 2021 inspection also revealed the facility had not been providing water to the dogs at all times, according to the documents.

But the 25 dogs on the property appeared to be in good condition, according to the complaint and inspection documents provided by the Department of Agriculture.

Rivera was issued a warning and told to correct the violations by July 27, 2021 when another inspection would take place, the documents said. The facility passed two other inspections last fall on Sept. 17 and Nov. 8, state documents showed.

The state Animal Control Division declined to say when the massive multi-agency investigation was launched into allegations that Rivera and employees were shooting and killing dogs on the property.

State officials went to the Naugatuck Police Department on April 23 to discuss the investigation and collaborate on search warrants and other evidence gathering efforts, an arrest warrant shows. The state Animal Control Division has no authority to pursue criminal charges, officials with the Attorney General’s Office said. The Animal Control Division must work with local or state police to obtain search and arrest warrants, officials said.

Naugatuck police joined the investigation interviewing current and former employees who confirmed they witnessed incidents of abuse, including the shooting and killing of dogs, according to an arrest warrant charging Luna with nearly 20 counts of animal cruelty, conspiracy and illegally euthanizing dogs.

Details of the arrest warrants, which also described the conditions in which animals were kept on the property, raised concerns for police departments that had purchased dogs from Rivera.

West Hartford police, who purchased a German Shepard from Rivera in 2021 and allowed him to train the animal, said they have checked to ensure their K-9, Onyx, has been having normal on duty.

“As soon as we saw the news break, we immediately started reevaluation of our K-9 and our K-9 handler,” West Hartford Assistant Chief Lawrence Terra said.

The department determined the K-9, who partners with Officer Tim Camerl for patrol and narcotics searches, was more than fit for duty, said Lt. Thomas Lazure who heads the department’s K-9 training.

The department purchased Onyx from Rivera in May 2021, Terra said. Onyx and Camerl trained with Rivera for 14 weeks and before the pair was certified and hit the streets in August 2021.

“There were no red flags,” Terra said. “He’s a great dog.”

In Springfield, Mass., police also had a good experience purchasing a K-9 from Rivera, according to the department’s public information officer, Ryan Walsh. The department purchased Yogi, a Belgian Malinois trained for patrol and tracking from Black Rock Canines during the pandemic, Walsh said.

Walsh said Yogi was not trained by Black Rock Canines. He was certified in May 2021 and was instrumental in the recovery of two loaded firearms in separate incidents since December.

Yogi “has been phenomenal,” Walsh said.

The allegations have rocked the small law enforcement K-9 community, said Frank Reda, a Westport officer with more than two dozen years of experience as a police K-9 handler and president of the Connecticut Police Work Dog Association.

The organization has about 300 members who support police K-9 teams through donations of equipment, sponsoring training seminars and providing donations for medical expenses for retired K-9 teams.

Rivera’s membership to the association has been suspended until the resolution of the criminal charges, Reda said in a statement to members. His reinstatement of him will depend on the outcome, Reda said.

“It is the position of the board (of the CPWDA) that we do not condone this type of behavior and it is not part of our mission statement,” Reda said. “Please do not let this undermine the professional work that you all do on a daily basis. Keep your communities safe, each other safe and give your K-9 partner some special attention to honor those K-9s whose lives were taken senselessly.”

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