“We’re adding a new tool to help us be more effective in our work – a four-legged tool,” Delaware County Sheriff Russell Martin said during a March 1 press conference, when he introduced the department’s first therapy dog.
Otto is a 6-month-old Bernese mountain dog, expected to weigh 90 to 100 pounds as an adult.
“Otto will eventually provide comfort to victims, first responders, witnesses, students, anyone in need of unconditional support and love. And the occasional visit to the sheriff’s office in particular,” Martin said. “Mental health has always been a part of law enforcement. Our response to it and how we deal with it, both with the clientele and the citizens, but also among those that we work with each and every day. Frankly it’s become synonymous with our work. A therapy dog is a gentle but strong and proven way to assist with mental health and trauma.”
Martin said his department has studied acquisition of a therapy dog for a year, assisted by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, which has three of them.
The Franklin County office in 2017 started its therapy-dog program, which Martin called the gold standard for police canine therapy training programs throughout the country.
“There is no wrong application for the use of a therapy dog,” said Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Darrah Metz, who attended with Mattis, the therapy dog she handles.
The dogs help mitigate the effects of trauma for crime victims and reflect the Franklin County office’s focus on advocacy in addressing mental health and trauma, she said.
Interacting with a dog benefits those who are anxious or upset, she said.
“It kind of brings them back to the present moment where they can get a breather,” she said.
Mattis is a 5-year-old Labrador Retriever and a therapy dog all his adult life. He sat quietly and watched the proceedings with the calm detachment of a veteran professional.
By comparison, Otto, a youngster still in training, was kept under close watch by his handler, Deputy Keith Cox, a peace officer for 19 years, and bribed with treats from Cox’s wife, Nicole.
Martin said Otto represents a commitment by the Cox family, who will house Otto and have done so for three weeks.
Despite his youth, Otto has the right stuff for the job, said Dwayne Young, an assistant director for Franklin County Animal Care and Control, which operates a dog shelter at 4340 Tamarack Blvd. off Morse Road, under the auspices of the Franklin County commissioners.
Martin said Animal Care and Control recommended Otto for the job, and has experience in identifying dogs with the ideal disposition for therapy work.
Young said Franklin County Animal Care and Control has a behavior staff who keep an eye out for canines with therapy-dog potential. Dogs are selected for their socialization and lack of aggression, he said, and are under a year old with a high capacity for learning.
He said Otto arrived at the shelter when he was found as a stray in January.
“We’re excited about this partnership with Delaware County,” Young said.
Martin said Otto was named in honor of Delaware County Sheriff’s Detective Dan Otto, who was with the department from 1998 until his death after an off-duty accident at age 38 in 2012.
Otto the dog is a reminder of the commitment and sacrifice of Dan Otto, Martin said.
“His legacy remains at this office,” he said.
Attending the press conference were Dan Otto’s parents, Craig and Bette Otto of Pataskala.
Her son was a huge advocate for victims of crime, Bette Otto said.
She said the family has volunteered for years at the Licking County Humane Society. She also has worked for 23 years in mental health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, which has dogs and cats as therapy animals.
“It’s amazing what they can do,” she said. “It’s just absolutely amazing, and for the department to be willing to take this on and share this with the community, I’m just speechless.”