Groton – You don’t expect to see a small, plump puppy or a large, cuddly Saint Bernard in police uniform and badges.
But police dogs of all breeds, sizes, colors and fluff levels were represented at Mystic Thursday, where officers and their four-legged partners came from the east coast to attend a conference on therapy dogs in law enforcement.
In the fight against crime, these dogs, unlike their K-9 officers, do not sniff out bombs or pursue suspects on the run. Most of the time they lay on the floor and let themselves be petted.
They are trained as therapy dogs or comfort dogs for the benefit of people with trauma. They are being taken to police departments, prisons and courthouses to help people from all walks of life become more comfortable working with law enforcement agencies. They work in schools where they help children with trauma to open up and relax. And they’re flown all over the map to the scenes of terrible tragedy – from mass shootings to bombings – to help first responders and victims alike feel a little more comfortable.
More than 30 therapy and comfort dogs gathered for “Cops and Comfort Dogs,” a conference hosted by Groton City Police and UConn Police.
Clarence, a 160-pound Saint Bernard from Greenfield, Massachusetts, has taken on the role of a therapy dog for law enforcement in New England. Now retired, Officer Clarence helped his owner, deputy boss William Gordon, through his own post-traumatic stress disorder in 2012 when 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown were killed.
A friend of Gordon’s friend, who is a federal police officer, went to Sandy Hook and saw how upset the first responders were about the scene they’d witnessed at school. Knowing about the work Gordon was doing with Clarence, he asked the duo to come down.
Clarence spent days with first responders in Newtown, laying around and being petted, and occasionally offering his paw to hold her, Gordon said.
“That’s really all we do,” he said, looking down at Clarence as the dog put his paw on a little boy with Down syndrome who was stroking his face. “I just hold the leash and let people have every interaction with them that they need.”
Gordon said that the goal of using a police dog is usually to help a person survive the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event.
“If a person has just been through a traumatic event, they experience acute stress and can repeatedly get caught in a cycle of thought about a traumatic event. We put a positive into a negative, ”said Gordon.
“It’s like a bad rain storm,” he said. “You have all these dark clouds, but suddenly the dark clouds break open and you see the first rays of sun and a rainbow. You don’t remember the black clouds, but you always remember that rainbow. We deliver the rainbow. “
Most recently, Clarence and Gordon traveled to Washington, DC to comfort members of the US Capitol Police, members of Congress and other staff on Capitol Hill after the January 6th Capitol uprising was replaced by a younger St. Bernard named “Officer Donut”, got a hug and a kiss from President Joe Biden.
Groton is where Officer Heather McClellan of the Groton Town Police Department lives and works with the city’s police therapy dog, a yellow lab called Chase.
“These dogs are for our community and for our first responders,” McClellan said, noting that Chase is as often as comforting a crime victim as she is helping a fire or paramedic.
“The goal is to create connections with our community and have conversations with them that we might not be able to have without these dogs,” she said. “Whether it’s helping victims speak up or comforting first responders like firefighters, rescue workers, and other rescue workers who are responding to difficult situations, it’s an amazing program that has had a tremendous impact.”
Chase was trained through a program called Puppies Behind Bars, which gives incarcerated people the opportunity to train police therapy dogs. She joined the Groton Town Police Department in September and moved in with McClellan, who pioneered the town’s therapy dog program.
McClellan helped organize Thursday’s event to highlight the work of various departments and agencies in their own communities.
In the morning, conference attendees gathered to discuss programs that are available in their cities that allow dogs to enter the community and offer their support services. From 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the hotel’s conference room filled with waving stories and smiling faces as the audience was invited to meet the dogs.
People who came to the event were given “passports” that could be stamped on their way through the conference room. Each page contained the name and photo of a different therapy dog with a space for the handler’s signature. The handlers also distributed baseball card style cards with their dog’s photo, name and background for the children to collect.
Angela Swift from New London brought her 6-year-old son Leandro Garcia and 9-year-old daughter Annelyse Garcia to the conference after looking for something to combat the heat on her day off. She said her children loved meeting all the different dogs, talking to officials, collecting cards, and filling out their passports.
Leandro Garcia, proudly wearing a new baseball cap given to him by a New York City Police officer, said the best part of the day was “petting all the dogs.”
His sister Annelyse enjoyed filling out each page of her passport by meeting as many dogs as possible.
“It was fun to see all of the trained dogs doing things like lying down, sitting up and getting up to get a ball. I liked how they gave us books so we could all see the dogs and the officers could sign for them, ”she said.
Swift said she thought the event was a great way for kids to interact with police officers and learn more about how police dogs are trained for them and their children.
“I think it’s great that kids meet cops like this and learn from law enforcement,” she said.
All comfort dogs, like Groton’s therapy dog Chase, are used to being surrounded by children who love to pet them.
McClellan and Chase spend much of their time in Groton Public Schools, where Chase visits students attending a special program following traumatic events.
Aly Macadam, a special education teacher on The Academy program for kindergarten and first grade students who survived trauma in Groton Public Schools, said Chase’s visits always help her students on their bad days.
Whether Chase sits with you while reading, accompanies you to the nurses’ room or helps you with occupational therapy, the time with Chase is “a calming form of therapy”.
“Visiting Chase just changes the whole mood of the day. Often times, my students’ emotions exceed them, but when Chase is there they always turn it around,” said Macadam.
Chase was escorted Thursday by a black lab named Indy, who was also trained by Puppies Behind Bars and now works for the Naugatuck Police Department, a Golden Retriever named Winnie from the Wellesley Police Department in Massachusetts and a fluffy Bernese Mountain Dog named Teddy from Attleboro, Dimensions.
Teddy’s handler, George Brown of Milford’s K9 First Responder, an organization that supports mental illness in critical incidents, said he spent years getting Teddy to prisons and locations of traumatic events and kept seeing comfort dogs help.
“The dogs break people’s resistance, their barriers, sometimes with the toughest of people who usually don’t reveal their emotions,” Brown said.
“Our job is to disrupt a traumatic event before your brain shuts it down and give it a positive break,” he said with a smile, pointing to Teddy’s paws.