Dogs have myriad roles in the lives of humans that go beyond that of pet: service dogs, support dogs, therapy dogs—and within public safety, K9s for search and rescue, drug discovery, crisis response, and other tactical and operational purposes. With the widespread use of K9s in public safety, it’s a wonder they are often overlooked for the critical task of supporting personnel, agency and community wellness. But that’s beginning to change as more agencies implement therapy dog programs.
In a recent Lexipol webinar, “Getting Started with First Responder Therapy Dogs,” leaders from public safety agencies that have implemented therapy dog programs offer insight into developing an effective program and its impact on their agencies and communities.
Benefits of Therapy Dogs
Understanding how a therapy dog program can benefit your agency and community is the first step in developing such a program. With so many potential directions to take, you must first know what you’re looking to accomplish before you can determine how to get there. “There’s so many different ways these dogs can help your organization and your people,” explains Chief Neil Gang from the Pinole (CA) Police Department. One clear benefit is the support a therapy dog can provide to personnel facing mental and behavioral health problems. “Understand that our people are struggling right now,” Chief Gang says. “We have to, as leaders, provide the best resources to make sure our people are healthy throughout this career and into retirement.”
Research has shown that the presence of therapy animals can lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, improve mood and foster feelings of support and confidence in humans. Additionally, dogs can act as a jumping off point in therapy, breaking the ice and opening up the conversation by fostering a safe environment. Therapy dogs can help people stay present in the moment while better managing and responding to their emotions with resilience.
Internally, therapy dogs can support all personnel, addressing their wellness needs and reducing the stigma around seeking support. “We have, for centuries, not talked about mental health. And I think we’ve finally turned the corner and we’re talking more and more about it,” explains Captain Reed Norwood from the West Metro (CO) Fire Department. “But there’s still a bit of machismo, there’s still a little bit of ego and people don’t want to open up. reduces the stigma on dealing with mental health…it just changes the whole mood.”
“You’re restricted only by your imagination on where you can use this dog and how the dog can benefit your community.”
This includes both sworn and non-sworn personnel—and it is often the non-sworn personnel, who may feel forgotten, who tend to use and benefit from these programs the most. Chief Gang highlights groups we may often forget: “They need resources as well…Really think about your dispatchers, your crime scene techs, your property evidence people. There are so many people that can get this benefit.” Therapy dogs can also be used to aid in peer support efforts, critical incident debriefings and, with the proper training, crisis response. Agencies with therapy dog programs see benefits ranging from improved recruitment and retention to better interagency relationships, not to mention the increase in important conversations around mental health.
Externally, therapy dogs can play a role in community relations. “This dog is a community resource,” says Chief Gang. While some agencies will limit the use of therapy dogs to their personnel, others will cross-train dogs to interact with victims’ families or witnesses, at children interview centers, in homeless and domestic violence shelters, and with community members. With a therapy dog as part of the department’s family, your agency can run community engagement contests, share about the dog on social media and host regular events featuring the dog. Again, therapy dogs can act as an icebreaker even here, immediately giving people confidence and a starting point for greater understanding. The dog can also provide partnership opportunities with community organizations to further engage those you serve and benefit your community on a larger scale. Improving relationships in the community while aiding investigative and safety efforts opens the door to conversations and collaboration that may not happen otherwise.
Use Your Imagination
Ultimately, how your agency uses therapy dogs will come down to the needs of your agency and community—and your vision. Will you focus the dogs on relieving personnel stress and trauma, or will you broaden their mission to interact with witnesses and victims? Could a dog bring new life to your community engagement efforts, such as recruitment fairs and other outreach?
“You’re restricted only by your imagination on where you can use this dog and how the dog can benefit your community,” explains Chief Gang. Once you understand the ways in which your community can benefit from a program, all that’s left to do is get started!
To learn more about the process, watch “Getting Started with First Responder Therapy Dogs” on-demand.