NH PDs use 'comfort dogs' to build community connections, boost morale

A growing number of police departments are taking on dogs trained to provide comfort to crime victims and trauma survivors

Shawne Wickham
New Hampshire Union Leader

CONCORD, N.H. —  These police recruits will work for treats and give you a wet kiss if you need one.

A growing number of New Hampshire police departments are taking on “comfort dogs,” which bring their unconditional love to crime victims, survivors of tragedies — and the officers themselves.

Chief Andrew Wood of the Hancock Police Department interacts with his department’s comfort dog, Rookie.
Chief Andrew Wood of the Hancock Police Department interacts with his department’s comfort dog, Rookie. (Photo/TNS)

Advocates say these dogs embody the kind of “community policing” that can improve trust and build connections between residents and law enforcement. Comfort dogs are turning up at courts, schools, nursing homes and community events.

Liberty, a yellow Lab with a sweet disposition and a gently wagging tail, officially joined the Concord Police Department in May. Her handler, Lt. Lenny O’Keefe, said these animals serve two purposes for a law enforcement agency.

“You have them for your victims and witnesses of crisis and trauma, but they’re really that bridge between you and the community,” he said. “We can’t walk down Main Street with the dog without people coming up to her.”

Retired from a career in corrections, O’Keefe joined the Concord department as a part-time officer so he could be Liberty’s handler.

While some departments have paid for comfort dogs, Concord purchased Liberty with donated funds, O’Keefe said. A local vet and a groomer provide free care, a dog food supplier has donated food, and supporters created a nonprofit organization to raise funds for the program. “There’s a way to do this without costing taxpayers money,” he said.

David Goldstein is police chief in Franklin, where Miller the yellow Lab has been serving for almost a year. “He’s got some saves under his belt already,” he said.

After a local student attempted suicide, Miller and his handler, Officer Kristen Tracy, responded to the hospital emergency room, Goldstein said. The girl recognized the dog from his visit to her school, “and the floodgates opened up,” he said. “And, by the way, Miller also helped the parents.”

He’s seen the same thing happen with crime victims, Goldstein said. “If there’s a dog in the room, they’ll talk to the dog.” And the dog’s calming effect on his officers and civilian staff, he said, is “almost indescribable.”

He’s felt it firsthand. “If I’m having a bad day and Miller walks into my office looking for a Milkbone, nothing else matters,” he said.

Last month, Concord police hosted a roundtable at a downtown hotel for comfort dog teams. It was a chance for the handlers — and dogs — to get to know each other, and an opportunity for agencies that are considering starting such a program to learn more.

Capt. Allen Aldenberg, commander of the patrol division at the Manchester Police Department, was there to collect information. If his chief gives the green light to get a department comfort dog, he said, the animal would be available as a resource for victim/witness advocates, the schools and the city’s Child Advocacy Center. “It’s a complete community approach,” he said. “Just another way for us to build another bridge to the community.”

Friday’s event had a special celebrity guest: Clarence, an 8-year-old Saint Bernard owned by Lt. William Gordon from Greenfield (Mass.) police. Over the years, Gordon and his gentle giants have responded to massacres at Sandy Hook (Conn.) Elementary School, a Las Vegas music festival and a Pittsburgh synagogue. This Sunday and Monday, they’ll be at the wake and funeral for a Worcester, Mass., firefighter who died last week in the line of duty.

Gordon, who has had his own experience with post-traumatic stress, said he has seen the impact a dog can have on first responders after a traumatic call. “Everybody’s in fight or flight,” he said. “We come in with the dogs and we tell them, ‘The fight’s done. You won.’?”

“They pet the dog, they get grounded, and it’s much better.”

“A trauma is like a really bad, stormy day,” Gordon said. “And then all of a sudden, the storm breaks and the sun comes through and you might have that rainbow. And everyone forgets about the storm; they remember the rainbow.”

“That’s kind of like how the dogs work,” he said. “They’re a double rainbow.”

Gordon is a co-founder of K9 First Responders, which dispatches trauma response teams to the scene of a tragedy. He said he gets a couple of calls every week from police departments all over the country, asking about setting up a comfort dog program.

The sheer size of his dogs and the work they do have made them celebrities; they’ve been guests at the White House and Disney World, and they once “rang” the closing bell at the Nasdaq stock exchange.

Earlier this month, the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee voted, 9-7, in favor of a bill to allow “facility” dogs “for the purpose of reducing stress,” in court proceedings involving victims or witnesses who are younger than 18, individuals with intellectual disabilities, victims of sexual offenses or witnesses to such offenses. Lawyers would be allowed to question jurors about the dog’s presence, to determine whether that might create undue sympathy for the witness, or prejudice against the defendant.

Dogs are already doing this kind of work here.

Chelsea Szalanski is director of youth services for Hillsborough and Jaffrey district courts. Every day, she brings Olive, her 5-year-old English Lab, to work with her. “The judge is happy, the prosecutor is happy; we’re good to go,” she said.

She sees the biggest impact among the young victims she works with, she said. “They’re so much more comfortable talking to the dog than a police officer or someone dressed up fancy,” she said.

Olive also provides her special form of comfort to foster care placement meetings, Szalanski said.

Because it’s a relatively new field, evidence of the benefits of comfort dogs in law enforcement is mostly anecdotal. But there are many studies that show the health benefits of animal interactions in medical settings.

Heath Grant, an associate professor and deputy chairman of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, has studied the use of therapy dogs in a jail setting. “It’s very apparent that it has positive outcomes in terms of the social and emotional health of inmates,” he said. “And even the COs (corrections officers) that work with them.”

“So dogs are wonderful for everyone,” he said.

Grant also studies compassion fatigue among law enforcement officers. “Usually, it’s caused by some sort of feeling of hopelessness, like I’m not able to effect change in the world,” he said. “And officers come into the profession wanting to help.”

There’s a growing awareness of the risks of suicide and PTSD among police officers, Grant said. He’s convinced dogs can relieve that stress: “Just having that friendly, trained animal there, to not only process emotions, but it also just makes us feel better, and I think that can be a mitigating factor against this compassion fatigue that can develop down the road.”

Concord’s Lt. O’Keefe said Liberty is already making a difference in the city. Last June, he brought Liberty to the scene of a Merrimack River drowning, where the dog comforted members of the victim’s extended family. “It gave them a few minutes of peace,” he said.

After a Concord High School teacher was arrested for sexual assault, Liberty became a weekly visitor to the school. “She was a positive influence up there,” O’Keefe said.

Liberty has also been to recovery meetings, a place a police officer previously would not have been welcome, he said. He tells participants if they’re ever in crisis, they should call him and Liberty will be there to offer support.

Hancock Police Chief Andrew Wood has been raising Rookie, a chocolate Lab, to serve as a comfort dog for his town. Boonefield Labradors in Rindge donated the pup to him, and local supporters have provided food and supplies, the chief said.

Rookie is a frequent visitor to local schools and nursing homes and was the hit of a recent town parade. “It’s a fantastic program,” Wood said. “My town loves it.”

Rookie knows the difference between work and home life, he said. “As soon as I take his vest and collar off him, he knows he’s off duty,” he said.

Rookie is the fifth comfort dog Peggi Brogan, owner of Boonefield Labradors, has donated to police departments in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Years ago, she was very ill and needed a support dog herself, she said. “I always said some day I would pay it forward,” she said. “That’s what motivates me.”

Franklin’s Chief Goldstein said having Miller join the department “is one of the most amazing connections we’ve ever made with the community in as far back as I remember.”

“Even the bad guys like the dog,” he said. “Why didn’t we do this 10 years ago?”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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