DOVER — The latest deputy joining the ranks of Strafford County Sheriff’s Department is still in training, but is already making history.
Cara, a 13-week-old black labrador puppy, is the department’s first comfort dog.
Police comfort dogs are similar to therapy dogs, serving to comfort people dealing with any kind of stressful situation, like courtroom testimony, forensic interviews, domestic violence situations, mental health situations, or assistance in the schools.
Cara is being trained and certified by the nonprofit Hero Pups to ensure the dog is ready to report for duty full-time upon turning 10 months old. Cara’s name de ella, which is Irish for friend, was chosen by a community poll taken by the department.
Deputy Katie O’Brien has been assigned as Cara’s handler. O’Brien is a 12-year veteran of law enforcement. While she has worn many hats over the years, she said she looks forward to spearheading the county’s first police comfort dog program.
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“The presence of a dog can transcend so many things, from differences in cultures, to varying situations or degree of fear,” O’Brien said. “People can see a dog like Cara and instantly feel a calm come over them as they pet her. Cara will be utilized to offer comfort and to help people relax when they may be dealing with a stressful situation or what could be the worst day of their lives.”
O’Brien describes Cara as her “new partner.” Once fully-trained, Cara will accompany O’Brien wherever she goes on duty and will live with O’Brien.
A qualified comfort dog
Hero Pups founder Laura Barker said Cara and her nine littermates were born at Hero Pups, and their mother was a rescue dog. At first, the then unnamed puppy was given a purple collar and nicknamed “Purple” until the department named her.
“She is a great dog overall, and while she’s a little opinionated, we’re working on that,” Barker said with a laugh. “It’s not a bad thing, though. We want our dogs to have their own individual personalities. Ella she’s gentle and kind, with a big personality. ”
Barker said training police comfort dogs like Cara is only a small part of the services they offer. Much of their work is centered on connecting support dogs with veterans and first responders experiencing physical or mental health challenges.
Barker said that when identifying which puppies will make good comfort dogs, there’s a few criteria the dog has to meet.
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“A police comfort dog …. does not respond to stressful situations,” Barker said. “These are dogs that are not great service dog candidates because they love and focus on everybody, whereas a service dog needs to focus their attention on the well-being of one person. These are like therapy dogs on steroids, and their work is equally as challenging in different ways.”
A day in the life of the county’s first comfort dog
Cara is already out in the field on a part-time basis. When she’s not working her tail off in training, she’s being introduced to the community through visits to local events and schools.
“It’s important that we introduce her to the community because you never know when you might need help,” O’Brien said. “These meet-and-greets hopefully build a positive foundation, especially with young children. That way, if they find themselves needing Cara’s comfort, a certain degree of trust and comfort is already established.”
Hero Pups spends months training their dogs to prepare them for whatever job is waiting for them. For Cara, that learning means how to deal with tense, loud and stressful situations, whether that is helping calm a child down as they give testimony or rushing to the aid of a victim’s family on the scene of a tragedy.
“Here’s one example of a comfort dog in action. We had a dog that was brought down a riverbank near Concord to comfort a grieving family as they waited for their son’s body to be pulled out of the river,” Barker said. “There were helicopters overhead, boats in the water, it was mad chaos, but that dog came in and provided some relief and distraction for that family.”
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O’Brien said because the sheriff’s office is in the Strafford County building in Dover, alongside numerous court rooms and the Strafford County Child Advocacy Center, it’s an opportunity to partner with different agencies. The Strafford County Child Advocacy Center, for example, is where forensic interviews of children and other victims of sexual assaults are done.
“There’s any number of situations where having an onsite comfort dog could be useful,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said the most rewarding part of this comfort dog program will be seeing the difference Cara can make through these types of interactions.
“Unfortunately, in the 12 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve sat through way too many child forensic interviews,” O’Brien said. “The center is very excited about the prospect of having a dog come in that can help these kids get through the interview. When you see these children, who have been through the most horrific times in their lives, they’re just scared and intimidated. They’re asked to open up to strangers in a room they’ve never been in. Having Cara go in there to give them a little bit of comfort with something else to concentrate on while they’re answering questions — that will make a huge difference.”