Highland Park, Community

A Dog Has His Day: Community, police department celebrate therapy pooch Pawficer Vinny Duke

Folks gathered at the Highland Park Police Department on Saturday morning to celebrate the birthday of Pawficer Vinny Duke, the department’s four-legged friend who joined the team in February 2022.

Since then, this loving therapeutic pup has provided unconditional love and support to the officers and community alike. 

Police Chief Lou Jogmen explained how the idea to enlist a therapeutic dog stemmed from the department’s concerning observations.

“Over the past several years, mental health calls have been exploding,” Jogmen said. “There seems to be so many more people struggling these days. When I learned of an organization that trained rescue dogs to become therapeutic pets, I was so drawn to the idea.” 

The organization is Florida-based Paws & Stripes, which pursues a mission to pair strays with inmates, giving both man and canine a chance for a new beginning. The inmates becomes the dogs’ handlers, undergoing a specific training to help the dogs become certified therapeutic animals.

As Jogmen began to do his homework, he learned of a stray pup named Duke, saved by the Brevard County, Florida Police Department and brought to Paws & Stripes. 

“I first met Duke online,” Jogmen shared. “Even virtually, I had an instant connection with him and my officers felt the same.” 

After the department received approval from local officials, it was Officers Darren Graff and Michael Lodesky who made the journey to Florida, underwent a 40-hour training course and returned to the Highland Park Police Department as Duke’s official handlers.

There’s no doubt about it: A dog like Vinny Duke helps bridge the gap between police and the people. It’s a true win-win for us all and he deserves to be celebrated.”
Lou Jogmen, Highland Park police chief

Upon the pup’s arrival, officers introduced him to the community and sought their suggestions for a name that would connect him to his new environment.  After much anticipation, it was announced that Duke would now be named Pawficer “Vinny” (giving a nod to Ravina) Duke. 

Soon, Vinny Duke became a welcomed new friend in Highland Park, making his rounds at local schools, senior citizen homes and other public venues. He was a happy addition to the neighborhood, but Vinny Duke’s real talents went far beyond being cute. Officers quickly learned that Vinny Duke had a skillset that no man could match.

“We were called to a home where two boys were fighting and one of the boys became completely distressed, locking himself inside a dryer and refusing to come out,” Jogmen recalled. “Despite all of our attempts, it was Vinny Duke who coaxed the young man to come out, comforted by the pure love and comfort that only Vinny Duke can provide.”

Officer Graff recalls the day he was called to a local school where a girl climbed to the top of the building, threatening to jump. Graff sat near the girl with Vinny Duke, until she finally came to pet the dog. The young lady took his leash and allowed the pup to lead her to the ambulance. 

“That day could have turned out very differently if it hadn’t been for Vinny Duke,” Graff said. 

Then came the tragedy that has forever impacted Highland Park and its police officers — July 4, 2022. Vinny Duke was the grand marshal of the Independence Day parade and just like every other officer and paradegoer, he was enjoying the celebratory morning until shots rang out and the world came to a halt. 

“Vinny Duke was needed in the days, weeks and months that followed — more than we could’ve ever imagined,” Jogmen shared. “He came to every vigil and every funeral. Vinny Duke marched in last year’s (remembrance walk). Once again, Vinny Duke gave our community and our officers the type of support that we all needed so badly during that tragic time.”

Jackson Burnell, 11, (son of reporter Alexa Burnell) pets the guest of honor Vinny Duke.

Lodesky added, “Vinny Duke was a godsend during those days after the parade. We needed him, our community needed him. He gave us so much comfort after the parade and continues to do so daily.”

In his short time at the department, Vinny Duke has provided countless benefits. Graff has now taken Vinny Duke into his home, alongside his wife and young children. An animal lover through and through, Graff is particularly bonded to Vinny Duke, grateful for the canine’s ability to provide calm during incomprehensible situations. 

“Vinny Duke is such a great source of comfort to so many, especially children. It’s heartbreaking when we have to interview a young child who has been a victim of abuse, but somehow, their story is easier to tell with Vinny Duke by their side,” Graff shared. 

Jogmen added, “There’s no doubt about it: A dog like Vinny Duke helps bridge the gap between police and the people. It’s a true win-win for us all and he deserves to be celebrated today.”

And with that, the crowd sang a cheerful round of “Happy Birthday.” Graff’s wife and young daughters happily gave him a canine-friendly cake, allowing Pawficer Vinny Duke to indulge in the honor of being among the heroes in a small town. 

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Alexa Burnell

Alexa Burnell is a Wilmette resident who has been covering the North Shore for the past seven years, previously for The Wilmette Beacon and its sister newspapers.

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