Michelle Merrifield (‘93) couldn’t get into her truck. The dog she’d just picked up from the Maine State Police, Pistol, was barking and snarling at the driver’s side window, letting her know with no uncertainty how he felt about Michelle joining him inside. It took a bit of goading to get her to open the door and jump inside — and a ball dangling on the passenger side window to distract Pistol long enough to let her in.
“His nose went directly in my ear. He was growling, sniffing. I was so afraid of him that when I got home, I put him in his crate and right into the garage. I thought he’d eat me while I was sleeping,” she said with a laugh. Cpl. Michelle Merrifield of the Maine Warden Service now leads the service’s K-9 program, overseeing eight dog teams positioned all over the state. But as a fresh Unity College graduate and Warden recruit in Aroostook County, her dog handling days were just beginning. “He spent the whole night crying and howling in the garage. I felt so bad, he slept on the bed every night after. He turned out to be such a snuggle bug.”
The beauty and quiet of Aroostook county was more than enough to keep Michelle in Maine after graduation, but it wasn’t long on the job that she realized her limitations when tracking local poachers. She’d find moose dead along the side of the woods roads with no witnesses and no evidence. Her metal detector “just wasn’t cutting it” and she could only think of one tool that could: a dog.
“It ticked me off to be at a crime scene and leave empty handed. I wanted every advantage to find what I was looking for,” she said. “As things evolved, I started seeing the other benefits of a working dog, especially when looking for people. But that didn’t happen until later in life. I eventually learned there’s nothing more rewarding than bringing someone home.”
Michelle didn’t exactly ask permission to have a dog — which is also a bit ironic, considering her current position as a K-9 trainer overseeing the Warden Service K-9 Team. She just called up the State Police to inquire about a dog and then drove down to get him. But Michelle explained that the warden service didn’t have a lot of dog handlers at the time and may have been glad to have a recruit with obvious, dedicated interest. That said, she may have been the last one to “get away with” joining that way.
Michelle knew she’d found her calling when her dog work with Pistol really began. Just like she’d known Maine was her place, her home, when she first came to Unity College. The other school’s she’d visited had been large and intimidating, where she felt she would be “just a number.” At Unity she immediately knew that wouldn’t be an issue, that she’d always have the access she needed to her professors and the one-on-one attention that helped her thrive. She did cross country, falling even more in love with the state with every place she visited and ran.
David Knupp and Deb Sugerman were two of her favorite instructors, and she credits Knupp with being “instrumental” in her education encompassing pieces not offered by traditional universities. She can remember going to his house to meet his wife and eat pizza with other students, chuckling, “That’s kind of bizarre, though, right? You probably don’t do that at other universities.
Unity College was exactly what she needed, though: a safe community to learn and grow within. And the diversity of opinion on campus taught her some of the most important lessons of her career.
“When I’m dealing with a complaint, there are two opposing perspectives, and there’s not always a right and a wrong way of looking at things. I have to be open minded and hear what they both have to say,” Michelle said. “The biggest advantage I have now is that I understand those differences in belief, and I would not have had that opportunity anywhere but Unity College. I got to know the spectrum of students, understand their perspectives, and learn to respect them, whether I agreed or disagreed. Unity College helped me be a mediator.”
Taking those Unity lessons as a strong foundation, Michelle has learned a lot over the course of her career, working with Pistol, a Belgian Shepherd who showed her the ropes, and then an “astounding” Dutch Shepherd named Dutchess who Michelle said she “lost count of how many people she found.” And now with Piper, another Dutch Shepherd, whose skills Michelle said she’s learned to amplify by “putting her in a position to be more successful.”
“You can work a dog or you can work with a dog. If you look the scene over for clues, or think to yourself, ‘Where would scent be in this environment?’ and start the dog there, that’s huge,” she said. “The more calls you go on the more you learn. I’ve finally learned how to help my dog be the most successful they can be.”
Between dog training, patrolling, and searching for people, Michelle finds the time to give back some of that knowledge, that passion, to Unity College students and Warden Camp participants. She figures it’s the least she can do, especially now that she lives on the Midcoast.
“I’m proud that I’m a Unity graduate. I get so much reward out of where I am today, and Unity College played a big part in that,” she said. “I got what I needed. Obviously — it’s worked for the last 24 years.”