DENVER (AP) – The Denver Police Department’s first therapy dog was originally trained as a guide dog but turned out to be too friendly to focus on helping a person.
Now the department is relying on the open-minded nature of the Black English Labrador Retriever to break down barriers and initiate conversations with people in high crime areas and those who are suspicious of the police.
Shelby, an eager 19-month-old woman who will work with Teresa Gillian, the downtown community resource officer, was officially sworn in by Judge Renee Goble on Thursday. Goble crouched in her black robe to get to dog height for the quick ceremony while Shelby’s tail wagged.
Denver joins about 300 law enforcement agencies in the United States who have purchased therapy dogs for a range of roles, said Sgt. Jason Ratcliff of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio. The department was considered one of the first agencies to use therapy dogs when it first acquired them in 2017, he said.
Some agencies use therapy dogs to accompany officials who work in schools while others use the dogs to help officials who have suffered trauma or to help with public relations, he said. Franklin County’s dogs are primarily used to work with victims of crime, including escorting children in court, he said.
Since arriving in Denver late last month, Shelby has been accompanying Gillian in her community work, which includes visiting schools and seniors, attending meetings and community events.
Chief Paul Pazen said Shelby is also being deployed in five areas of the city identified as hotspots for violent crime.
“Having them on the team and on the streets gives our residents, who might otherwise be reluctant to deal with a police officer, a certain level of comfort,” said Pazen.
While visiting an alternative school, a girl who said she had PTSD was interested in Shelby but was a little scared, Gillian recalled. The dog seemed to sense the girl’s mood, rolled over on her back and offered her stomach to scratch, and the girl relaxed, she said.
Gillian hopes that after protests against George Floyd’s killing last year, the dog will help people know the police as part of their community rather than a group outside of it.
“Shelby is the tool that will help us fill that void,” she said.