Over the course of her career, Rookie, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever, will greet and impact thousands of lives.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) is likely one of the first agencies in the state to have a certified therapy dog paired with a law enforcement officer working in the field. 

Rookie is a part the WCSO’s Crisis Response Team, an initiative that was launched in October 2020. 

“Whether it’s meeting a preteen with emotional concerns or a veteran struggling with daily life, Rookie provides a friendly tail wag and head for them to scratch, which helps them focus on the help we are able to provide,” said Rookie’s handler, Detective Matt O’Hara. 

 

Where it all began

The idea to add a therapy dog within the agency originated as a way to improve health and lower stress within the workplace. Last April, the agency started to research the idea and found several law enforcement agencies across the nation that had successful therapy dog programs that went beyond their four walls and helped the community. 

A retired deputy told the sheriff’s office about Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) of America, a nonprofit organization that custom-trains dogs for people in need. FSD trains dogs to serve veterans with post-traumatic stress as well as clients with disabilities. (See freedomservicedogs.org for more information). 

After several emails, phone calls and a few virtual meetings with FSD staff, O’Hara traveled to the FSD training facility in Colorado in June to meet Rookie and see not only if he was a good fit for Rookie, but if Rookie would be a good fit for the WCSO. O’Hara and Rookie are FSD’s first team to serve in law enforcement. 

“The meeting was only a few hours long, but we knew we had found the perfect dog,” O’Hara said. 

O’Hara then returned to Colorado in July for a week of training. O’Hara said the training was mainly for him, as Rookie is his first certified therapy dog. Rookie, however, had already been training for her mission since she was a young pup. 

Amanda Vallo, FSD director of client services, said O’Hara is and continues to be an amazing part of the team. “He really was the one who had the forethought and vision for how this team would work and has already been putting that vision into practice,” she said. “(During the placement process) he was able to give a specific example of a woman in the community who was making an inordinate number of non-emergency 911 calls. Matt has reported that with the arrival of Rookie, that number has been greatly reduced. A Rookie visit is now the service she needs.” 

 

What Rookie does 

Rookie tags along with O’Hara on crisis follow up visits with people who are experiencing a mental health crisis, homelessness or a substance/chemical abuse issue. 

“We'll go out and visit with them, try to work on finding resources for them and get them connected to the help that they need,” O’Hara explained. “We have the connections with social workers, hospitals, to be able to ensure that the people that we are working with are getting the help they need and not slipping through the cracks.” 

Having Rookie there can help people open up. “Talking about somebody's mental health can be extremely stressful for somebody, and the addition of Rookie kind of gives us something else to talk about as we go through that,” O’Hara explained. “We can talk a little bit about what's going on in their life, what we can do to help and they get to hang out with a dog for a while.” 

Rookie also makes her rounds to law enforcement staff and will visit inmates and possibly schools in the future. Rookie is also around for crime victims who visit the sheriff’s office. 

O’Hara recalled that while he and Rookie were making their rounds at the Washington County Fair, every day they would stop and visit one of the ride operators. It didn’t take long, but the operator opened up about his struggle with homelessness and was touched by his interactions with Rookie. “He said that dog changed his life,” O’Hara said. “It just really bridges that gap and that disconnect in between law enforcement and the citizens.” 

Since Rookie was originally trained as a service dog, she is really in tune with how people are feeling. If she notices someone is anxious, she will put her paw on their foot or rest her head on their lap or in their hands. 

Rookie knows both verbal and hand commands, and her reward is food. “When she is working with me, she is always looking for her next treat,” O’Hara explained. 

When Rookie is not on the job (wearing her vest), she goes home with O’Hara and does everything any other dog would do — That is, except going into the kitchen, where she has a bad habit of counter surfing. 

 

Lead Editor Shannon Granholm can be reached at 651-407-1227 or citizennews@presspubs.com.

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