A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the benefits of adding a K-9 unit to a department. In that post I extolled the myriad benefits such special units have for police departments and the communities they serve. I mentioned the ability to increase the effectiveness of drug enforcement efforts, search and rescue operations, as well as the apprehension of dangerous suspects.
However, I overlooked another important mission a police dog can fulfill, and was reminded of that oversight earlier this week when we reported on a department in the San Francisco Bay Area that has added a therapy dog to its ranks.
Crime victims, witnesses, and first responders in the city of Pinole will now have access to a 70-pound black Labrador retriever named Milo to help them with emotional support following traumatic incidents.
Milo will not conduct enforcement activities such as narcotics searches or suspect apprehensions. He is strictly meant for helping people who have had possibly the very worst day of their lives.
Milo is "medicine" for the mentally and emotionally wounded—he need only be present to be effective.
Pinole Police Officer Jennifer Witschi trained with Milo in Sedona, AZ,
before the agency made the announcement of its newest public safety asset.
Witschi said, "We really hope that he is able to go out and change people's lives and make those incidents that are traumatic for these individuals a little bit easier for them to cope with."
It was a little stunning to learn that—according to the report from KCBS Radio—Milo is the very first therapy dog in the entire Bay Area. I would have thought that agencies across the region had already caught on to this trend, but apparently not. However, therapy dogs have been slowly making their way into police departments for several years.
Therapy dogs are not new—they've been employed in children's hospitals and convalescent homes for many years. They have proven to be effective in speeding recovery from debilitating disease and adding to the quality of life of individuals who are incurably approaching death. They've been used to help patients with chronic schizophrenia, dementia, Alzheimer's, and other afflictions.
The addition of therapy dogs to police agencies is also not new. A couple of months ago we reported on the Independence (MO) Police Department welcoming to its ranks a two-year-old golden retriever/border collie mix as their first ever certified therapy dog.
The agency said on Facebook that the dog's mission is to "help improve the psychological well-being of our employees at the police department. The therapy dog will be assigned to our Peer Support Team."
Other agencies have made headlines with similar news.
However, reports of an agency acquiring a therapy dog are not exactly commonplace—not yet anyway.
My argument today is that it would be a wonderful thing if the addition of a therapy dog to a department's ranks becomes as mundane as the acquisition of office supplies—there would be no headlines because it would not be news.
The American Kennel Cub says on its website that "science has shown us how beneficial therapy dogs can be. Visits from a therapy dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce patient anxiety, and increase levels of endorphins and oxytocin."
Put more simply, a well-trained therapy dog and its handler can have a tremendously positive effect on an individual's wellness following a traumatic event.
These animals give comfort to a witness or a victim of a crime so that investigators can more easily—and less stressfully—gather information about the offense and the offender.
For law enforcement, therapy dogs can greatly reduce heightened short-term anxiety following a critical incident with the added effect of potentially increasing recall for debriefing. These animals have also been proven to effectively help individuals manage long-term post-traumatic stress.
Further, therapy dogs also can replace the other—much more harmful—ways in which officers sometimes choose to "relieve stress" such as alcohol abuse.
Finally, in addition to providing important mental and emotional wellness benefits, these dogs can be—and almost always are—tremendous ambassadors for the department that employs them. They show up at schools, festivals, parades, and other community events and are magnets for kids as well as kids-at-heart.
Not Ordinary Dogs
A therapy dog is not an everyday house pet. These dogs are meticulously trained to possess specific personality characteristics such as calmness—a dog that jumps up on people can have the exact opposite of the intended effect of a therapy dog—and empathy.
As with every other aspect of law enforcement, not all training is good training.
It's important to find the right organization to train your new K-9 Unit.
An agency can reach out to nearby agencies to ask about where they had their therapy dog trained, or they could go to the websites of organizations like Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International. Another excellent resource is the International Association of Canine Professionals (the other IACP).
Further, the breed of the dog can be an important consideration. Many departments look for Retrievers like Milo. Others look for Poodles. Still others look for Saint Bernards. Some therapy dog experts recommend going for a mixed breed animal because they tend to have better health.
In the end, breed is far less important a question than the individual animal's personality and ability to accomplish the requisite training with aplomb.
Finally, the selection of the handler is also important. This individual must also have that inherent calmness and empathy required of their four-legged partner. They must also be willing to accept the fact that they will be exposed to additional trauma (they'll be in the room with the traumatized individual too) and be willing to receive mental health treatment of their own if such exposure begins to have adverse effects.
There is certainly a cost to adding a therapy dog to the ranks. These dogs are not typically as expensive as an enforcement K-9, nor is the training as expensive or lengthy.
But nothing worthwhile is cheap—or easy.
You'll have to account for high-quality food, regular veterinary visits, as well as home and department accommodations like dog crates and beds and toys and other items.
All in, you're probably looking at three-to four thousand dollars up-front, and at least two to three thousand dollars per year for the life of the animal.
The question really becomes, "How will this investment improve the mental and emotional wellness of my officers and the people they serve, and how much is that improvement worth?"
I'd say that any substantial improvement to your department's mental and emotional wellness is "priceless."