Peer Support Unit uses doggone good therapy program

HPD Peer Support & HOPE Volunteers

HPD’s Peer Support Unit has turned to a friend to help relieve stress among officers in all division.

We’re talking here about man’s (and woman’s) best friend – a dog. In this case, a comfort dog.

Comfort dogs have become common sights in the aftermath of traumatic scenes like active shooters at schools or stressful situations frequently faced by first responders.

Comforting the Officers

While a “service dog” helps his master with basic movements and tasks, the tail-wagging “comfort dog” eases a person’s stress level with undivided attention and unconditional love.

Comfort dogs were used for the comfort of humans in the traumatic aftermath of 9/11. They are common sights with students following the all-too-common active-shooter episodes in places like Uvalde and Santa Fe.

The past few years they also have been commonly used in big-city police departments such as New York PD, LAPD and the Chicago PD to help ease the stress level of officers involved in too many serious events or investigations.

A year ago, Peer Support began “helping the helpers” with comfort dogs using a memorandum of understanding with a nationwide non-profit group that doesn’t charge a penny.

Peer Support furnished comfort dogs for all three shifts at South Gessner, where officers have experienced an unusual number of stressful events the past few months.

“They were one of the first stations we tried out this pilot program,” Lt. Kenneth Peters of Peer Support reported. “It seemed to work well to get their minds away from stress for the moment, just for the short term.

“We thought it would be necessary because South Gessner had been through several stressful events in the past month.

“The measurement of our success is kind of up in the air right now. What do you call success? Success is found in a number of ways. For a brief moment the stress was relieved for the officers.”

Peters repeated what other members of his staff acknowledge – some officers love dogs and take comfort from their loving attention, while others might not like the canine approach.

Peters had tasked Senior Police Officer Michael Crellin with developing a comfort dog plan for HPD. Crellin updated the Badge & Gun on the development of new approach to combating stress.

“There is no universal play book on this. Right now, our own thing involves the use of a nationally recognized organization with people who donate their time and dogs. They furnish this free to the department. Their teams consist of handlers and their dogs. They just like to help. They’ve been wonderfully received when they were deployed to South Gessner.”

The name of the group says it all: HOPE Animal Assistance Crisis Response. It has 20 years of operations behind it after its development following the use of comfort dogs in the Oregon active shooter murders in 1999 and in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001.

“We were asked to come in,” HOPE regional director Karen Klein said. “The mental health workers realized that the dogs were doing more good than the humans.”

Crellin said Peer Support had a three-month memorandum of understanding (MOU) with HOPE until the first of November when the agreement was extended for six months. Klein said HOPE was looking forward to continuing its relationship with HPD. She met with Crellin and Peer Support while attending a Galveston conference Nov. 3-5.

Klein said HOPE operates as a 100 percent volunteer organization. This means that handlers and their dogs might meet with a group of first responders at their own expense. She pointed out that timing and “word of mouth” are important aspects of the operation.

In her report of HOPE activities since the first of the year, Klein reported that at least 63 percent of the volunteer dog and human hours were devoted to first responders.

“There were 108 responses that touched the hearts of 3,100 individuals with 1,700 volunteer hours.”

When necessary, volunteer teams pay their own expenses, often for airline tickets. “Comfort dogs are classified as working dogs. We have contacts with the airlines and the dogs do ride with us.”

HOPE does conduct fundraisers. But the Badge & Gun cites the group’s website in case there is any reader wanting to make a contribution. Just go to hopeaacr.org. You can easily find the Donate Today link on the right side of the first screen of the website.

“We do a lot of networking,” she explained. “We do presentations and explaining what we do. We develop relationships before it (traumatic event) happens. We talk with first responders, victims’ rights advocates and school officials. We don’t wanna be part of the chaos. We want to be part of the recovery. We wait until they call us.”

Developing the HPD Concept

HOPE Volunteer with Crellin

“Relationships have to be formed before something happens. ‘You could really use us’ is what we emphasize in conferences and presentations, which only take 15 minutes. It doesn’t take too long.”

Crellin, son of retired HPD Officer Kerry Crellin, said all roads led to HOPE after he studied the playbooks of the three other large police departments in the United States – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Crellin said when he came to Peer Support a year ago, he found an overwhelming amount of support for a comfort dog program from the top to the operations level of the department. Both Peters and Crellin credit Lt. Leurena Reese with thoughtful inspiration when she was a sergeant in Peer Support, pointing out that the idea actually came from a former member of Legal Services.

The practice was approved from the top – by Assistant Chief Chandra Hatcher, through Commander Giang Tien and Lt. Peters.

Crellin reached out to the other three large departments to learn what he could.

“It turns out they all had comfort dogs in some form or fashion,” he recalled, “all set up differently.

“NYPD has its own dogs. They are treated like any other service animal – horses and K9s. They are much more akin to house pets. Still, there is a cost involved.

“LAPD uses an outside organization like what we’re doing. A former LAPD officer trains these dogs Theyre police-friendly. Also, he furnishes dogs for the LA county sheriff.

“Chicago has retirees bring their dogs to serve. They go through obedience training. My understanding is that they are not certified as comfort dogs, just dogs brought up through obedience training. They have over 20 dogs that they can choose from.”

“We train our own dogs,” Klein said. “They are social and like people. Their handlers are calm and flexible. They do therapy work for a year.”

She said the trainers stage traumatic events that feature loud crying and other noises you might hear at a crisis scene. Dogs are introduced to firefighters in full gear and other first responders they might encounter during a task.

“The dogs are amazing at what they can do,” she said. “We learn a lot of mental health experts. We learn the dog’s body language.  The dogs may be stressed, not liking the situation they’re in. We don’t want to ruin our dogs by burning them out.”

Currently there are 10 comfort dogs in Texas available for service through HOPE. Just more than half are in the Houston/Gulf Coast area. Klein dispatches dogs to the five states in her region – Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico.

At HPD, supervisors may contact Lt. Peters if the need of a comfort dog arises. These special animals have been at South Gessner twice and also have made appearances at the Internal Affairs Division, the TAP Unit (Transfers and Promotions) and, just recently, at the Dispatch Center.

Lt. Peters was pleased with the positive response to the comfort dogs. He said he couldn’t predict the future of comfort dogs at HPD, saying, “It’s too early to say right now. I can see that HPD might decide to get their own comfort dogs in the future.”

Klein said a dog doesn’t have to be a pure breed to be a comfort dog. She said the vast majority of HOPE dogs are, as matter of fact, “rescues.”

Crellin could name a few he’s gotten to know: Gus, Rebel (named by a handler who is an Ole Miss alumnus), Chucho, Sarah and Pickle Juice (named by the handler’s granddaughter).

“It’s fun seeing a stressed-out super tough officer baby talking with dogs,” said the graduate of HPD Academy Class No. 190. “People kind of melt when these dogs are around.”