Training the Woodbury Police Department’s two newest recruits so far has involved a lot of toys and treats.

Buster and Cirrus, two 12-week-old Belgian Malinois puppies, make up the inaugural class of the department’s new program to prime its next K-9 officers in-house. Police departments typically import K-9s from overseas or use dogs owned and trained by a specific handler.

In addition to teaching the four-legged cadets, the department’s new training model is also an education for its two-legged officers. Under the mentorship of current handlers, officers interested in becoming future handlers are helping raise and socialize the puppies.

That departmentwide training is “an innovative approach,” said Sgt. Jason Posel, Woodbury’s head K-9 trainer.

Bred locally, the puppies started their training at 8 weeks old. Teaching sessions last only as long as the pups’ attention spans, Posel said, but so far he’s impressed with Buster and Cirrus’ progress.

Posel likens the process of training the dogs to track scents to a language immersion program — the more exposure and teaching the dogs get at a young age, the better.

In the past, the department has used working dogs imported from Europe. When those dogs arrived, they often had little to no tracking training and lacked a familiarity with the type of environment they’d be required to work in.

“With the puppies, we can focus on tracking and expose them to all kinds of things right away,” Posel said.

Buster and Cirrus will replace two aging K-9s that are set to retire next year. Woodbury’s four K-9s are used primarily for their tracking ability, said officer Brian Cline, one of the department’s four handlers. The dogs are brought in to help locate missing people or search for evidence.

“They are also just an effective bridge to the community,” Cline said, adding that bringing K-9 officer Nova to events can be conversation starter and a way to build relationships with residents.

That community engagement has exploded since the puppies joined the force, but Woodbury’s support of the K-9 unit has been long-standing, Posel said.

In memory of her late husband, Bruce, Donna Smith-Stafford in 2014 launched a nonprofit to help support Woodbury’s K-9 program. From 2017 to 2018, the fund raised about $25,000, Smith-Stafford said. The money has been used to send handlers to training sessions and, most recently, to purchase Buster and Cirrus.

Bruce Stafford was a former Woodbury fire chief and paramedic who didn’t work with K-9s but loved dogs, Smith-Stafford said. The fund “was a way to say ‘thank you’ to Bruce’s brothers and sisters in public safety,” she said.

Earlier this summer, the department used the fund to buy nasal Narcan — a medication used to block the effects of opioids — to use in case the dogs inhaled drugs.

In addition to the Woodbury Police K-9 Fund, a local pet store has donated food and supplies. An area animal hospital has donated all shots and examinations for the puppies’ first year.

To Posel, the two puppies with the boundless energy and stickup ears are “an investment in the community.”

“The support for what we are doing has been fantastic,” he said.

Cline chimed in: “Because who doesn’t love puppies?”