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Clearwater PD launches therapy dog program
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Aino, left, and Obi, are two German shepherd therapy dogs that will be working with the Clearwater Police Department to help victims.
Belinda Darcy is a victim advocate for the Clearwater Police Department. Her German shepherds, Aino, 5, left, and Obi, 9, are two of the department’s new therapy dogs.
CLEARWATER – She didn’t want to talk about it. Not to her, at least. Not yet. She was 12 or 13 and should have been outside playing, not sitting with a therapist to talk about being sexually abused by a family member. Things like that are not supposed to happen.

But then came the dog. Obi, a gentle, tan German shepherd doesn’t judge. In that session, the therapist focused a lot on the dog, and the girl got to go outside and walk her. The therapist finally broke through with the girl. She opened up more. Even in subsequent sessions without Obi present, she was much more open with her therapist.

“She went home and her mother came back and said, ‘Thank you so much. I have not seen my daughter smile since this happened,’” said Belinda Darcy, victim advocate for the Clearwater Police Department and owner of Obi, the 9-year-old German shepherd. “At the conclusion of treatment, which the therapist shared with me, when she was asked what was the best thing about therapy, she said it was when she got to interact with Obi.”

Obi and Darcy’s other German shepherd, Aino, are two of the four dogs as part of the Clearwater Police Department’s brand new therapy dog program.

Darcy has had therapy dogs for many years and has used them to help the public in various areas. But several months ago, Darcy attended a training seminar and met a victim advocate from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office who brings her therapy dog to work each day. Darcy got excited about this idea and immediately brought the information back to Sgt. Laura Spelman, supervisor for the Crimes Against Children and Families unit with the Clearwater PD. Spelman got right on board and took the idea to Clearwater Police Chief Anthony Holloway, who thought it was a great idea. The program officially launched on March 7.

The dogs involved so far are Darcy’s Obi and Aino, a 5-year-old, dark-colored dog with a unique, tan-colored “suntan” on the top of his head. Also involved are volunteer Christine Barsema’s two therapy dogs, Kinsey, a 4-year-old Norwich terrier, and Caleb, 6, a Bouvier des Flandres dog.

Barsema’s dogs actually unofficially started working with the department about a year ago, Spelman said. A man had killed his wife right in front of their kids, she said, and the kids were taken to the police station soon after they had witnessed the murder. Barsema and Caleb – a giant dog with shaggy black hair who looks like a big rug when he lies down – sat with the kids in a special children’s interview room while they waited for their turn to talk to detectives.

“The kids had just seen dad shoot mom, and they were in the room when it happened,” Spelman said. “They weren’t all over the dog, loving on it and everything like that, but he was just there and they would just sit next to him and pet him and Christine talked to them about the dog. So really it was more of a way to get their mind off of what they had just seen and give them something to think about and something to reach out and pet and calm themselves down.”

It can be hard for officers to keep kids entertained and calm before they can interview them, Spelman said, not only because of what they may have just experienced but also because they are in a strange place with strange people. The children’s interview room helps, as it is set up like a big play room and has a TV with kids’ shows on, but the therapy dogs help immensely. They also help the kids get used to the room, where they will later be interviewed.

Since Barsema is a volunteer and not an official member of the police department, she can not be present when people are interviewed or are in court, Spelman said. But having the dogs available during the times in between is valuable. Barsema also said that she found little stuffed dogs that look like Caleb that she gives to kids to keep, so they can have something to hold onto in the interviews and after the whole ordeal.

Spelman said her unit, working with child victims of sex crimes or abuse, will definitely use the dogs but she also anticipates the homicide unit using them as well.

“And it’s not even necessarily just the victims,” Spelman said. “People who witness a traumatic event and things like that, it will give them an outlet to have the dogs there before they’re interviewed. And when we had Caleb here for the little kids, you also saw the detectives who were there working the case and out at these scenes and saw all the blood and guts, they would come in and just kind of pet him and de-stress. It’s just endless the things that you can use these dogs for. Victims, witnesses, employees – whoever needs to de-stress.”

Darcy has used her therapy dogs to help people for years. Aino’s father, Sarge, was helping people even before he became certified as a therapy dog.

“When I was doing this voluntarily with (Sarge,) we would work with the children who were sexually abused, and when you saw the interaction between the dogs and the children, you saw what a benefit it is,” Darcy said. “I mean these kids have been traumatized. They’ve been through so much, and a lot of times we were working with them to get them ready for court. So they would lay with (the dogs) and talk with them and it was very calming.”

In her early work with Sarge, she brought him to work, which was a school for teenage girls with various issues, Darcy said. One time she dressed up Sarge and brought him to a costume party at the school.

“This one young lady gravitated toward Sarge,” Darcy said. “She had been the victim of sexual abuse by a family member. Grandpa. When she revealed this information, most of the family was like, ‘You’re a liar,’ which is very typical. Just really put her through a lot. So any time Sarge would come in, no matter what else was going on, she would go sit with him.”

She would just sit and talk to Sarge, and Darcy was amazed by how much comfort her dog could offer.

The young lady graduated from the program, and years later, Darcy drove up to a fast food restaurant and discovered that the young woman worked there.

“First thing out of her mouth: ‘How’s Sarge?’ You saw that dog had made such an impact,” Darcy said.

Since Darcy is a victim advocate with the department, she and her dogs are allowed to accompany victims and witnesses in interviews, and she had even taken Sarge into depositions at the courthouse.

Dogs can offer things that humans can’t always deliver on their own, Darcy said.

“There’s no judgment,” Darcy said. “So when someone’s telling them a story that might be very embarrassing, they’re not making any judgments. They just listen. They can just sit there and talk, and (the dogs) will listen. Nobody’s going to give away their secret.”

There are various organizations that evaluate and certify therapy dogs, but generally they test and verify the dogs’ obedience, how well they listen and behave, and that they have a good temperament and are safe around kids and adults, Darcy said. Since therapy dogs are most often used in hospitals and nursing homes, the dogs also are often exposed to wheelchairs, crutches, hospital items, loud noises, and other things they may encounter in the field to ensure that the dog can handle it and still remain calm.

Additionally, Darcy’s dogs have undergone a lot of additional obedience training. Both have also been temperament tested in other ways, including by German Shepherd Dogs of America and have been tested by an organization called ATTS that exposes animals to friendly and unfriendly people, gunshots, walking on strange surfaces like plastic and metal, having umbrellas opening in their faces, people wearing strange outfits or uniforms, and other kinds of stimuli.

“It’s an awesome breed, but it’s a breed that often people associate with police dogs, and they can be protective,” Darcy said. “I wanted to make sure that they have a lot of testing to make sure they are stable. And both of these dogs are very much so.”

Barsema’s dogs have also passed their therapy dog certification as well as lots of other training. She and her dogs have volunteered with Morton Plant Hospital’s Caring Paws program for about eight years, as well as participate in other performance sports that require a lot of obedience training. Both also are narcotic, bed bug and mold detection dogs, and they are required to be calm and focused to perform that kind of work.

In all of her experiences, Barsema said she has often witnessed the natural calming and comfort that dogs bring to people. If she volunteers just as a person, patients may or may not talk to her. But if she goes with one of her dogs, she immediately gets all kinds of questions. What kind of dog? How much do they weigh? She gets so many questions that she has made up doggy trading cards for each of her therapy dogs, with their picture, name, and breed on the front, and more pictures and information on the back. For instance, Caleb’s card says that he is an intelligent dog who loves to work, and when he isn’t working, he competes in herding, obedience, rally and carting and weighs 125 pounds.

Caleb also has a knack for knowing who especially needs his furry comfort.

“When we’re in medical situations, Caleb just stops and turns his attention to a patient because he just knows that they maybe need him for a minute,” Barsema said. “… Maybe someone needs a little extra attention or love, and sometimes the nurse will say, ‘You know, that patient is having a rough time.’”

Barsema, Darcy and their dogs also have worked together in a courtroom program that helps victims, Barsema said. Darcy came up with the idea of making a book with pictures of the available dogs that kids could choose from.

“This particular girl was a victim of a pedophile, and she picked my other Bouvier,” Barsema said. “She was so terrified of this alleged pedophile because now she had to face him two years later in the courtroom. That’s a long time. She was nervous, obviously, and scared, and we just distracted her with stories of the dog, and she was playing with him and there was a little brochure and that stuffed dog, too, that comforted her.”

Since the Clearwater Police therapy dog program is new, staff is still figuring out how often the dogs will be at the station. Spelman said that obviously it would be wonderful if there was never a need for them, but of course that is not reality. Darcy plans on taking her dogs to the station fairly regularly so they could be on hand in case they are needed. She also wants to let them visit with staff, as the officers have stressful jobs, too, and could use some furry cuddles. Barsema also will bring her dogs around regularly.
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