You Had Me at Saint Bernard

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In April, semi-retired Officer Clarence attended the services of slain Capitol police officer William “Billy” Evans as a volunteer with K9 First Responders. Even as he met heads of state, the “very large dog”, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell observed, did what he does best — receive affection and calm troubled spirits.

At 160 pounds, the 10-year-old Saint Bernard is more than just a large dog. He represents the legions of comfort dogs now populating police departments across the United States. The first official “police dog” in the nation, Officer Clarence’s success at soothing the pain of firefighters after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 spurred a movement of caring that continues to grow.

Today, there are police dogs in dozens of Massachusetts’s law enforcement departments, and approximately 50 in New England, according to Deputy Chief William Gordon, Clarence’s handler.

Officer Clarence’s day job is with the Greenfield Police Department in Greenfield, Mass. Here his special talents for lying down and listening help soothe victims of crimes who must re-tell their stories to officers of the law.

Comfort Dogs Help Police Officers

Although dogs have been used in police work for decades, it’s only recently that they’ve become vital in the soft science of policing – the space between officers,  community, and mental health.

Today, throughout Massachusetts specially trained dogs, whose compassionate spirits reduce victim stress and encourage communication between officers and the public, roam neighborhoods and even attend court hearings. Canines provide support services for victims of traumatic events, attend counseling sessions with depressed and suicidal children, and even calm addicts in recovery during court cases.

They act as a distraction device, explains Gordon. For a child who has lost family members to a devastating fire, a dog at the funeral allows her to talk about him, rather than herself.

Recently, the Greenfield police used a police comfort dog to distract a man attempting to commit suicide. He had stationed himself on the outside railing of a rickety bridge, one too unstable for officers to safely climb. Instead, Officer Clarence maneuvered close enough for the man to notice. Once Clarence had entered his line of vision, the man decided to meet the animal, moved to safety and boarded the ambulance.

How Does Petting a Dog Help Individuals?

Direct contact with a dog creates an immediate calming effect, lowering blood pressure and easing anxiety. In psychological terms, comfort dogs facilitate “contact, engagement, and decompression” — three elements critical to defusing stressful situations.

Within the context of a horrible experience, a dog’s nonjudgmental support establishes an emotional bond making it easier for a traumatized individual to seek professional help. They also can reduce post-traumatic stress disorder response by allowing a good memory to emerge from a bad experience, explains Gordon.

Gordon, who has received extensive training in human psychology and crisis intervention as part of his responsibility as a handler, says adults often find it easier to tell their stories to a dog. He recalls a mass shooting victim wracked with guilt after running for safety while her daughter died. Although counseled by Gordon, she spoke to the Saint Bernard, a sounding board for untouched emotions.

Supporting Police Officers

Even the men and women who wear a badge benefit from petting a dog.  Research is studying the psychological benefits of police officers interacting regularly with a trained therapy dog. A couple of minutes with Fido, it is thought, could curb symptoms of depression and PTSD, both all too common among those in the law enforcement field.

A dog breaks the ice between the counselor and the first responder, Gordon explains. The lumbering presence of a warm animal allows professionals suffering from trauma to relax, let their guard down, and begin emotional healing.

A Community Conversation

From a law enforcement perspective, dogs are blind to color, religion and politics, creating the perfect safe space between their work and the people they serve. As the use of canines in law enforcement grows and becomes more specialized to meet emotional and community needs, it is hoped the bonds police officers strive to build between themselves and their community may flourish as well.

The Hundred Club — Serving the Community

Caring, serving, and protecting all of us who live in communities throughout Boston is the motto of every police officer patrolling our streets and every firefighter responding to emergencies. At The Hundred Club of Mass., we care for those who care for us. When these everyday people-turned-heroes lose their lives in the line of duty, we are here for their families.

When a police officer or firefighter dies, in many cases, their paycheck and insurance stop before their death benefits begin, which is where the Hundred Club steps in to help. Your generosity provides immediate support to the families of these everyday heroes; funds they can rely upon to pay rent, groceries, and other bills. Help us continue the tradition of caring for those who care for us. Donate to the Survivor’s Fund: https://100clubmass.org/donate/