Clearwater Police gets new therapy dog program

10:31 AM, Mar 13, 2014   |    comments
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Clearwater, Florida -- Clearwater Police have added four new four-legged members to the Victims Advocacy Program.

Aino and Obi are German Shepherds, Caleb is a Bouvier des Flandres and Kinsey is a Norwich Terrier. They are the only therapy dogs to work for a law enforcement agency in Pinellas County. 

"There are a lot of instances where therapy dogs would be so helpful, so I went to the chief and he was all for it," said Detective Sgt. Laura Spelman. 

Detective Spelman collaborated over the years with Clearwater Police Victim Advocate Belinda Darcy, who owns the German Shepherds, and Clearwater Police volunteer Christine Barsema, who owns the other two dogs. 

"I have always wanted to use my therapy dogs here at the department and finally we can do it," said Darcy.  "I have been a therapist for a long time and I have always been a dog lover and to see what a therapy dog can do for a person involved in a traumatic situation is remarkable."

Detective Spelman had a particular case about a year ago where she did not need man-power but instead, puppy love. 

"We had a homicide case," said Spelman.  "A particularly gruesome one.  A man and his wife were estranged but he came to her home one night.  He broke into her bedroom in the middle of the night. She was in her bedroom with her two very small kids. They were both under five-years-old and he shot the mother right there in front of the kids and then he left the apartment and shot himself right outside."

As a detective she had to interview the children, because they were witnesses. 

"The kids were extremely traumatized," said the detective.  "I thought about calling Christine right away, knowing her dogs work with the court system sometimes, and they are so good. I called her in the middle of the night and God bless her, she came down and spent five or six hours with the children."

"Generally, it's children we are working with," said Barsema. "Perhaps it was a pedophile, or they witnessed a shooting.  Caleb, my larger dog, has done this before. He just lays down on the ground like a rug and the kids if they are interested, can pet him and maybe not think about what just happened.  The goal is to keep them interested in the dog and keep their mind off the horrific incident."

Her dogs, like Darcy's, have hundreds of hours of therapy training. 

"Caleb is extra specially trained for emergency situations too," said Barsema.  "He has been put through a set of drills about what they would encounter in, for example, a nursing home, where they test him on, 'Do they bark? Do they jump on patients? Are they OK with screaming?  Wheel chairs rolling over their legs or feet?'  Caleb is a natural disaster stress relief dog. He has had FEMA testing and with him, I have had to have psychological testing.  Caleb has been put through unbelievable pressure to see what this dog works to do in an emergency situation. Not many dogs pass, because they have to be able to handle large noises, confusion, people screaming" 

The police department is still getting used to seeing the German Shepherds around the police station as therapy dogs and not police K-9s. 

"I have to remind people that they are therapy dogs and you can touch them and play with them!" laughed Darcy. 

The department does not have to pay them or their owners.  Their owners volunteer their dogs' services for free to help victims or witnesses out of hairy situations.  

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