When you think of police dogs, the standard image is the K-9, aggressively sniffing drugs or chasing a suspect.
But law enforcement now relies more on a different type of dog – a warm, fuzzy alternative that isn’t part of a first response, but later policing that requires a more sensitive approach.
One of the newest suburban so-called therapy or comfort dogs is Gus, a 4-year-old Labrador retriever standard poodle mix who recently joined the Buffalo Grove Police Department. He lives and works with the police department’s social worker, Brittany Wilson.
Wilson, who has worked for the police department since 2016, helps with a wide variety of crisis situations — including domestic disputes, child custody disagreements and circumstances involving mental health issues.
Unlike police dogs, which are usually German Shepherds or similar breeds, therapy dogs can be any shape, size or breed, said Jay Reed, president of the Masonic Association of Service and Therapy Dogs (MAST ). The Lake Villa organization trains therapy dogs, including Chance, who works with his partner, Elgin Police Department Detective Craig Arnold.
“We have everything from Pomeranians to Bull Mastiffs as long as they certify at one year old,” Reed said.
Most certifying therapy dog classes are three hours long. The minimum MAST is 10 hours.
“Also, we think they need to go out and do (four to six) hours of field work,” said Reed, a former firefighter.
The result is a dog that can help in a crisis, such as a case of domestic violence.
“The dog will come in and work with the victim, whoever they classify as the victim, and the dog and handler will work with that victim, calming them down, making them feel safe,” Reed said.
When the victim is more comfortable, he says, witness statements are much more detailed.
This fits perfectly with Wilson’s mission in Buffalo Grove.
“My primary role with the police department is to bridge the gap between the police department and the community by being an advocate for victims and providing resources to the people of Buffalo Grove for additional support,” Wilson said.
Gus is an alumnus of the Paws & Stripes Comfort and Therapy Dog Obedience Program, which is facilitated by the Brevard County, Florida Sheriff’s Office. The program pairs trained and carefully screened inmates with trained shelter dogs to provide therapy services with law enforcement. All selected dogs receive basic obedience training and are selected for their temperament and behavioral characteristics.
Gus not only helps defuse stressful situations with clients, but he will also help police and other first responders cope with the stress and impact of their jobs.
“We are so grateful to Gus. The smiles he brings daily to not only myself, but also the officers and my clients, are just priceless,” Wilson said.
Elgin has seen results with Chance, a golden retriever who joined the force last year.
Arnold said the idea of bringing Chance into the force came from the former Elgin Police Commander. Eric Echevarria, now Peoria Police Chief.
“They’re not trained to do search and rescue. They’re not trained to search for items or anything like that. They’re basically just a loving animal,” Arnold said.
Chance will show up at city events and also make appearances at hospitals to visit patients.
Arnold said MAST therapy dogs provided therapy after a high school student died by suicide. More than 100 students came to the school auditorium to visit the dogs.
“They were literally sitting there and kind of talking to a dog that couldn’t respond to them. So it definitely brings out a side of people that maybe you don’t normally see,” Arnold said.