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Trio of Therapy Dogs Join SUNY Plattsburgh University Police Department

dogs and handlers

The three new SUNY Plattsburgh University Police officers are high-energy, friendly and enthusiastic about their jobs.

They’re also covered in fur, and have floppy ears and wet noses. Reva, Izzy and Caamp recently joined the force as therapy dogs  

University Police Chief Patrick Rascoe said the dogs will be trained to respond to students experiencing mental health crises or emotional difficulties and simply to bring joy to the campus community to boost its overall wellness.

‘Make People Happy’

“We go on foot patrols (in the residence halls) and every floor, you’ve got five, six people coming out of their dorms just wanting to pet her, (saying) it made their nights,” Officer Lauren Dube said of her yellow English Labrador, Reva. “They make people happy.”

Izzy, a black English Lab, is handled by Officer Nathan Yeager and Caamp, a nearly nine-month-old golden retriever, belongs to Officer Tina Bedard. All three dogs are females.

Dube and Yeager picked up their now six-month-old pups from a breeder in Chatham, N.Y., on March 18 and they started their work and training on campus soon after, Yeager said.

‘Passionate about Crisis Intervention’

Bedard already owned Caamp when the initiative got off the ground, and she decided to enroll her in the training program so she could be a part-time handler. She brings Caamp to work for events like Teal the Quad in April, which promoted awareness and support for survivors of sexual assault.

“I’m really passionate about crisis intervention and community,” Bedard said. “I saw how happy she (Caamp) made people in the public, and I just wanted to bring that to work. That’s the reason I wanted to be a part of it.”

Rascoe said about 20 percent of the department’s calls have some mental health component whether it’s a request to check on a student’s welfare, a student in crisis, or someone in crisis not affiliated with campus coming onto the grounds.

‘Starts a Conversation’

Beyond the delight that Reva brings to students, the pup gives Dube a chance to start conversations with students and develop relationships with them, she said.

“I feel like having her is more of a conversation. Walking through and seeing kids, it’s more of an opportunity to talk to them. Everyone approaches her (Reva) and when they’re petting her and loving on her, it gives me an opportunity to talk to students a little bit, open up with them even more than I was already doing before that.”

Yeager said working with and training Izzy has helped him better understand the needs of individuals on campus.

“Reading the body language of the dog is a lot like reading the body language of people. So, of course, a lot of our job has to do with understanding people’s body language and what agitates them or calms them down.”

‘Ask to Pet Them First’

While the therapy dogs are there for the community to pet, Yeager said there are some situations when that is inappropriate.

“Always ask permission to pet our dogs,” he said. “Most of the time, we’ll probably say yes because that’s what they’re there for, but there will be situations where preferably not whether we’re training, going to a call or a situation that we don’t want that dog to be in.”

Dube said that when specific calls aren’t safe for the canines to accompany the officers, the dogs can be left safely in the police station or in temperature-controlled police vehicles.

Positive Feedback

chief rascoeRascoe said he’s received overwhelmingly positive feedback at events where officers brought their dogs.

“You just have to be there to see it. Everybody is just loving on these dogs. It is very clear how much people appreciate it,” he said.

“Students are always coming in asking for them now,” said Danielle Blanchard, a communications and security specialist at University Police, who dispatches calls to the officers.

The grant that funded the program came from Behavioral Health Services North and was awarded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Dogs Can ‘Offer Comfort’

Kourtni Souliere, associate director of crisis services at Behavioral Health Services North, who allocated the grant dollars, said the therapy dogs could help make police interactions less stressful for certain students.

“At times, interactions with officers can add an additional stress component, especially if there’s prior trauma or negative exposure. So, officers who have a nontraditional approach both in how they present and the tools and resources they’re able to bring with them can certainly offer comfort,” Souliere said.

For a student experiencing a mental health crisis, a dog can provide some solace and lessen anxiety, she said.

“There’s lots of science behind someone’s response to petting an animal. It lowers their blood pressure, their heart rate, all those somatic symptoms of a mental health crisis. It helps them regulate their body so they can begin to organize their thoughts and work on what a plan looks like after that,” Souliere said.

dogs in car‘Dogs Are Perceptive’

The dogs’ personalities vary and mimic their owners, Rascoe said, which will work well to serve students with a variety of mental health needs and experiences.

“You don’t want all your dogs to have the same personalities. People who are suffering in silence don’t want to have a dog who is going to be wagging their tail in their face. They want a dog who will sit beside them.”

Conversely, a student who is just having a bad day might want a more playful dog to cheer them up, he said.

“My dog personally, she’ll pick on people’s energy. She’ll be able to help them in that aspect and feel them out and get them help in their crisis or whatever is going on with them,” Bedard said.

‘Will Help with Victim Statements’

The officer said the presence of a dog while a student is giving a victim statement could also be invaluable since it’s distressing to have to recount something traumatic that has happened.

“This program will really help with our response,” Bedard said. “We can show up with a dog, they’ll be able to talk to us either by petting the dog or keeping them more relieved by having the dog’s presence there.

“(It’s the) same with victim’s statements. The dogs will be there to help us relieve them so they can speak freely,” she said.

Rascoe said studies have shown that officers assisted by therapy dogs will have more and better interactions with the public, something critical for community policing, which aims for police to establish a relationship with the community they serve.

Souliere said a therapy dog can meet people anywhere they are with their mental health, from experiencing a bad day to a severe mental health episode or something in between.

And she said the dogs will benefit faculty, staff and visitors to campus in addition to students.

“The campus community, the teachers, the staff, everyone just kind of being able to give back to everyone’s wellness as a whole above and beyond just addressing the crisis puts the community where my family and everyone lives in a better position.”

‘Beneficial for Officers Too’

That extends to the staff in the University Police station, the chief said.

He said the dogs positively impact the department’s mental health, adding that everyone from the dispatchers to administrators enjoy seeing them at work.

“Happy and healthy police officers are more procedurally just. They reflect that in their everyday interactions with the public.”

Despite all the positive effects, Rascoe said Bedard, Yeager and Dube realize that not everyone likes dogs for various reasons.

“The handlers are always on the lookout for people who are uncomfortable with the dogs and would never make an approach with someone who doesn’t acknowledge that they would like to interact with the dog.”

Each dog will complete testing to become certified once they are a year old, he said. For now, they have weekly in-person training with Mel Deller, an experienced local dog trainer who has trained other therapy dogs and in between sessions they practice at home with the officers, Rascoe said.

Deller said the three dogs will technically be facility dogs, which require a higher level of training than therapy dogs. Facility dogs work in educational, court and health care settings.

‘Autonomy for Positive Outcomes’

Souliere said an interaction with Izzy, Caamp or Reva could be the difference between a student in distress needing transport to the hospital and being able to remain in the community if it is safe for them.

We are “offering a greater variety to support somebody in a time of crisis. Allowing them to have some autonomy and some control in that time has the most positive outcomes for the person we’re supporting.”

Rascoe said students, faculty and staff can request that a therapy dog and officer attend their event by emailing [email protected].

— Story, Photos by Assistant Director of Communications Felicia Krieg

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