Okay, I admit it, when the Captain first pitched the idea, I thought it was just another one of those stupid, feel good, totally not police related, publicity stunts doomed to eventual failure. I mean, come on, a police dog that doesn’t chase, doesn’t bite, doesn’t track, and couldn’t find weed in the middle of a Jamaican forest fire? You gotta be kidding, right? What use could the mutt possibly serve if the damn thing didn’t do anything “police-ish?” Well, guess that’s why the Captain is the Captain and I’m not, because that idea hit it out of the park like nobody’s business, right up there with peanut butter and jelly, and, for the record, “Yes sir, I am sorry that I thought your idea was stupid.”
Oddly enough, the idea was hatched at a chance run in between our Captain Kauffman and the regional director for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), during a remote island surf trip to Panama. After bonding on the big waves, a working relationship soon formed. CCI, a non-profit organization based out of Oceanside, Ca., trains service dogs for the disabled, as well as facility dogs for different care environments. They do not sell dogs; they accept applications and distribute dogs (labs and gold retrievers that they breed themselves) based on need. Once the dogs are born, they go too certified “puppy raisers” that care for and train the dogs according to CCI standards, until they are 18 months of age. The dogs are then returned to CCI where an intensive 6-8 month training program begins with highly skilled trainers. If they pass a majority of the training, they are evaluated for the type of work and companion they are best suited for. Applicants are matched with dogs and then live at the facility for two weeks, where they learn how to manage their new partners.
The CCI/Hawthorne PD relationship began with our department utilizing some of their dogs that did not pass the CCI program due to a “high drive” disposition. We began placing those dogs with local law enforcement agencies for narcotic detection work. After seeing some of the amazing results, as well as the training at CCI, the Captain came up with the idea of a dog specifically trained for community relations and facility work. The CCI board approved the idea and they soon began the long process of selecting the right dog.
Turns out that dog was one of the cleverest ideas I’ve seen come out of the law enforcement brain trust in a long time. His name is “Scottie,” and he is officially called our “Facility Dog.” Yeah, nothing fancy there I admit, but it’s not the title that does the trick, it’s the community’s reaction to Scottie that’s been a wonder to behold. Trot him out at a community event, a neighborhood watch meeting, a visit to the local school, and that critter is the equivalent of a four-legged Justin Beiber. With more tricks in his repertoire than a circus act, he sits, lies down, rolls over, shakes, carries coffee, delivers books and teddy bears to kids, shows them how to pick up the phone and dial 911 and even reads to the children (actually he grumbles, but they think he reads which is very cute). Scottie is extremely socialized, responds to some 46 commands, and maintains the gentlest disposition, no matter how many kids, or adults, may be pawing at him, grabbing him by the collar, or snapping flash photos from six inches away. Like a champ, he continues to dole out heartfelt nuzzles and cuddles for all those that desire them.
In a nod to cost saving, Scottie was assigned to a civilian Patrol Service Officer, PSO Lameka Bell, rather than a full time police officer. PSO Bell volunteered for the position and, after competing in an oral interview process, was selected for the position. After the extensive matching process by CCI, followed by K-9 training at their Oceanside facility, both she and her new partner, Scottie, were assigned to the Community Affairs Unit. While the department covers the costs of care and feeding, no additional pay or incentives come with the job, and Scottie travels with Lameka in her personal car, rather than a K-9 unit. While Scottie is a department K-9, he does enjoy some liberties not typically associated with regular K-9s. When he is not attending various city functions or community events, he can be found amicably wandering the station, gratefully accepting the cheerful greetings, hugs, and belly scratching of passing officers and civilian employees. In fact, PSO Bell begins each workday by walking Scottie through the different department bureaus, her only goal: to generate good feelings and a positive atmosphere. There’s definitely something to be said for employees, both sworn and non-sworn, starting their day off in the best mood possible.
As Scottie’s effectiveness as a bringer of good cheer began to be recognized, PSO Bell, a Sunday school teacher and avid community volunteer in her own right, came up with the innovative idea of expanding Scottie’s role beyond that of just a sideshow at civic functions. With no goal other than to bring happiness, she and Scottie began to reach out beyond the normal community events, to help those in the community truly in need. She began, simply enough, by trying to help one of our own officers, a Sergeant whose son was battling cancer at the Children’s hospital. Seeing the smiles that the visit generated, and realizing that a positive interaction can make difficult times more bearable, PSO Bell pushed forward with her new commitment. She quickly expanded her visits to other hospitals, care homes, and the homes of those who were seriously ill and/or had suffered a recent tragedy or been victims of violent crime. The results were astounding! There is a certain transformation that comes over people when they encounter Scottie and get their first affectionate nuzzle, a wet reminder that life is a beautiful thing, still filled with warmth, wonder, caring people and… animals. I guess that’s part of the magic of Scottie the department dog: his ability to make people forget their troubles for a few minutes, to recall better times and happier moments, to just bask in the unabashed and unconditional love of a dog.
Personally, I like dogs, especially the kind that latch onto bad guys. I have to admit, however, it took me a while to warm up to the idea of a “facility dog.” While I grudgingly acknowledged Scottie’s success at the community level, and found myself enjoying Scottie’s presence at the station, I didn’t really recognize his usefulness on the streets, until I finally saw him in action for myself. I was monitoring one of those free food/present giveaways one warm December day when things started to go a bit south. Security was inadequate, crowds were large, less than desirables were starting to congregate, folks were cutting into unorganized lines, and tempers were starting to fray to say the least. As I looked with dismay at the rapidly deteriorating “Happy Holidays,” I pondered the difficult explanations I would face, should I allow the charity event to deteriorate into some knock down drag out brawl over who got the last free turkey or pogo stick.
I was on the verge of ordering more units over for crowd control when PSO Bell showed up with Scottie. She and Scottie immediately deployed and started working that crowd like seasoned pros. The reaction was almost instantaneous, as if someone flipped on a giant happy switch. The line, previously filled with unhappy, irritated, and distressed families and children, happily crowded around the gentle dog, kids and adults alike, petting and laughing, posing for pictures, asking questions, completely distracted from their previous angst. It was like a breath of fresh air blew through that turbulent line, bringing reason, rational thinking, a dose of happiness and a remembrance of the joys of the season. Watching that transformation, I became a believer. One PSO and a dopey Golden Retriever did what I, and a half dozen other cops, probably wouldn’t have been able to do: they calmed the crowd and kept everyone happy. Not a bad investment after all!
While spreading good cheer may not be the traditional role of law enforcement, it certainly can’t hurt, especially in this cynical day and age. As Bob Dylan once said, “The times, they are a changing.” And we, much as we may hate it, have to change with it. Anything that good, anything that can reach out and fill the citizens with joy and happiness, anything associated with law enforcement that isn’t bad, negative, hostile, or cast in a suspicious light can’t be a bad thing, especially for a police department or the people who work there.
So where is that damn dog…..I think I need a hug.
Ti Goetz is a Lieutenant with the Hawthorne Police Department. He has worked patrol, gangs, detective bureau, internal affairs, SWAT, and is now the traffic bureau commander and the SWAT commander.