Therapy K9s: Changing the way law enforcement serves communities

The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office started a police therapy K9 program to improve community engagement and better serve their citizens


By Jason Ratcliff

In March 2017 Sheriff Dallas Baldwin of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in Columbus, Ohio, began the first law enforcement therapy K9 program in the state. At the time we were one of only six other agencies we could identify nationwide who were utilizing the benefits of therapy dogs.

As an agency that embraces community engagement, we realized therapy dogs could be beneficial tools to serve our citizens in a unique way. Dogs transcend cultures, religious beliefs and political affiliations, so we knew they could provide a segue into establishing stronger relationships with our diverse population.

Various agencies benefit from the the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office therapy K9 program, including children's services, the prosecutor's office, the FBI, and veteran’s and drug courts. (Photo/Jason Ratcliff)
Various agencies benefit from the the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office therapy K9 program, including children's services, the prosecutor's office, the FBI, and veteran’s and drug courts. (Photo/Jason Ratcliff)

The program has been such a success in our community that as of this writing, our program has grown to three canines. We have two handlers who are Certified Trauma Practitioner Clinical (CTP-C), as well as two Qualified Behavioral Health Specialists (QBHS) through the state of Ohio.

THERAPY K9 PROGRAM ACTIVITIES

Although public relations and community engagement represent a portion of our efforts, the cornerstone of our program is victim's advocacy, mental health and trauma.

We utilize the dogs in weekly group and individual counseling sessions with children enrolled in the mood and behavioral program at our local children’s hospital. Many of these children suffer from anxiety and are depressed, suicidal or have had suicidal ideations. As part of this partnership, the hospital is collecting outcome data for us. The last set of data indicated that 90% of the children reported an increase in mood when dogs were present, 100% of clients felt the dog's presence was helpful and 100% of clients reported a decrease in the overall SUDs (subjective units of distress scale) ratings of the children.

In addition to this partnership, we work closely with our county children services agency, our prosecutor's office, the FBI, and our veteran’s and drug court, as well as partnerships with several school districts where we specifically target children with behavioral challenges.

THERAPY K9 PROGRAM EXPENSES

The main expenses of a canine program revolve around the care of the dog themselves. We have been very fortunate that our program is funded through donations and community partnerships. All veterinarian care, food, supplies and grooming are provided by community partners free of charge. In addition to those services, we have received approximately $60,000 in monetary donations since the program’s inception from individual and corporate donors that assists us with needs not covered by the service providers.

Marketing our program to let our community know about what we do has been key to our success. Harnessing the power of social media, attending key events and taking advantage of the relationship between our public relations office and the media has been crucial to spreading our message, our needs and our mission.

THERAPY K9 PROGRAM TRAINING

Sergeant Jason Ratcliff pictured with therapy K9 Kit. (Photo/Jason Ratcliff)
Sergeant Jason Ratcliff pictured with therapy K9 Kit. (Photo/Jason Ratcliff)

To run a top-notch program, we recently sent one of our handlers through a Master K9 Trainer school and they are now a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP).

In addition, we have staff who are evaluators for a nationally recognized therapy dog certification body. This enables us to do our training in-house and tailored to our specific needs, as well as assist other agencies who are looking to start a program.

To help us better understand how to use our dogs effectively, several of our handlers are in the process of obtaining their CTP-C designation (Certified Trauma Practitioner-Clinical).

3 CONSIDERATIONS BEFORE LAUNCHING A THERAPY DOGS PROGRAM

The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office has a total of 14 dogs: 11 are dual-purpose K9s and three are therapy K9s. A therapy K9 can be anything from a chihuahua to a pit bull. A therapy K9 is selected by temperament alone, and breed plays no factor.

Agencies interested in starting a therapy K9 program can utilize their local animal shelter or rescue organization who often have dog behavioral specialists to help you select the best dog for your mission. If an agency prefers a breed of dog, they should work with a reputable breeder who can assist them in selecting the best dog for their needs from the available litters.

Here are three steps agencies should take as they plan a therapy dog program:

1.  Get leadership support

Key to the success of any new program is buy-in from the top. Because the concept of therapy K9s is so unfamiliar to the world of law enforcement, I recommend doing thorough research before presenting the idea to decision-makers. Plead your case as to why it works. There are plenty of studies on the benefits of therapy dogs and, as with any new venture, it is a good idea to see who is being successful and reach out for advice and trusted counsel to not only gain insight but to save time. Don't reinvent the wheel. It is much easier to take an existing model and tweak it to your needs.

Various agencies benefit from the the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office therapy K9 program, including children's services, the prosecutor's office, the FBI, and veteran’s and drug courts. (Photo/Jason Ratcliff)
Various agencies benefit from the the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office therapy K9 program, including children's services, the prosecutor's office, the FBI, and veteran’s and drug courts. (Photo/Jason Ratcliff)

2. Establish funding for the program

Economic factors are next in importance. We are fortunate that our community has financially supported us, but that support didn't fall into our laps. Many hours have been, and continue to be, dedicated to marketing and spreading our message. Only you can decide if that is the right course for you. If your canine remains healthy, yearly maintenance costs should hover somewhere between $1,000 to $2,000. This is a small price to pay for the return on investment your agency and community will receive through strengthened relationships.

3. Review liability concerns

Liability issues and concerns will differ from agency to agency, especially with organizations that currently do not have a traditional K9 program in place. Behavior/temperament testing is crucial to a successful program. I would not recommend an agency select a dog without a temperament test from a trained professional, which should be a documented part of a dog’s file. In addition, ongoing training should be documented. An agency also needs to incorporate a comprehensive set of standard operating procedures for all handlers to follow. At the end of the day, even a well-trained dog has the propensity to bite, which is why it’s so crucial a therapy K9 program is ran with the same professionalism as any other unit in an agency.

LE THERAPY K9 SCHOOL ESTABLISHED

We routinely field calls and emails regarding how we managed to create a successful program. Questions range from how we pick and train dogs, liability issues, financing and our standard operating procedures.

Due to the amount of questions we receive, we created a week-long Law Enforcement Therapy K9 school through a partnership with our county Animal Control office where we will be selecting and training therapy dog candidates from the shelter. Our first class will be held in late summer of 2019. There will be no costs to agencies other than travel and lodging expenses if needed. At the end of the school, we will send officers home with a fully trained canine ready to serve their community free of charge. 

The cornerstone of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office therapy K9 program is victim's advocacy, mental health and trauma. (Photo/Jason Ratcliff)
The cornerstone of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office therapy K9 program is victim's advocacy, mental health and trauma. (Photo/Jason Ratcliff)

Since we began this venture almost two years ago we have identified approximately 40 law enforcement agencies nationwide deploying therapy dogs in their communities. We have seen tremendous results from our program and community support has been overwhelming. It is my hope that other agencies will consider bringing this innovative concept to the communities they are sworn to serve and protect.


About the author
Jason Ratcliff is a 23-year law enforcement veteran. He has served the last 20 of those years with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in Columbus, Ohio, where he has worked in corrections, patrol, investigations and now as a sergeant on the community relations team. Contact Jason at jvratcliff@franklincountyohio.gov.

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