Meet Avon Police’s newest member: Dottie the therapy dog
The 4-year old beagle will bring a special element to the local agency
The Avon Police Department welcomed a new member to its team in March: a 4-year old Beagle named Dottie.
Dottie and her partner Colleen Gaspard, a school resource officer and patrol officer for the Avon Police Department, recently completed training with the Brevard County Sherriff’s Office in Florida at its Paws & Stripes College.to become a certified therapy dog and therapy dog handler.
Dottie is the first K-9 member of the local police agency, and the only police therapy dog in Eagle County.
Gaspard first heard about the program and the value that therapy dogs can bring to communities last summer. Immediately, she saw how a therapy dog would be beneficial to Avon’s community, specifically for Avon Elementary School where Gaspard serves as the school resource officer. Starting next year, Gaspard and Dottie will be in the school a lot more.
“A lot of what I read was that the academic scores were raised when therapy dogs were brought in with the kids,” Gaspard said, adding that these dogs can specifically be used for students with learning disadvantages, autism or with other social and communication needs.
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“They can read to the dogs, they can do math problems with the dogs, spell words, so there was some positive increase with this group of children,” she said.
Avon Elementary School Principal Dana Harrison-Garcia said she was excited when she heard about Gaspard’s idea of utilizing a therapy dog at the elementary school.
“This was the first time I heard about law enforcement officers having therapy dogs. In the past we had an organization that would bring therapy dogs in to sit with students while they read to them. This was an amazing program and our students looked forward to the dogs visiting. When the pandemic started, this program paused and we have not had the opportunity to start it again,” Harrison-Garcia said. “These opportunities complement each other, I hope that we can one day have them both active at Avon Elementary School again.”
The benefits of students interacting with therapy dogs are plentiful, Harrison-Garcia said.
“Research states that therapy dogs can increase well-being, help students feel more relaxed and help them with social skills,” she said. “I can see this being a benefit for not only students but also our staff.”
Harrison-Garcia foresees Dottie not only joining Gaspard when she makes her rounds at the school, but also in the school’s classroom for students with social and communication needs.
“Our students spend time in their classroom as well as in a center-based classroom where they can work on specific skills according to their needs. I envision Dottie spending time in this classroom as students work on their communication, social and academic skills,” she said.
Harrison-Garcia did add that the school will give parents the opportunity to have students opt out of contact with Dottie if they choose to do so.
“While we are thrilled to have Dottie participate with our student body, we understand that not everyone is a dog person and are respectful of that boundaries,” she added.
However, Dottie’s duties as a member of the Avon Police Department won’t stop at the school. Gaspard said that these therapy dogs can be utilized for individuals in mental health crisis, with victim advocacy units assisting in things like trauma-informed interviews, crisis negotiations and more.
“It’s such a wide variety, we can call her in for anybody that would need assistance in crisis or just anybody that needs to be, that would calm down for a dog,” Gaspard said.
Dottie will join Gaspard on duty most days that she works, helping her to engage with the community every day.
Paws & Stripes
In order to become a therapy dog, Dottie and Gaspard underwent training from a unique program in Florida, ran by the Brevard County Sherriff’s Office. The program takes animals that are either surrendered or found as strays and evaluates whether they’ll be a good fit or not for becoming a therapy dog, or even a comfort dog for veterans, kids with behavioral and emotional needs and more. The program also allows law enforcement agencies to enroll their own animals in the training.
After they’re evaluated for fit, the dogs are paired with inmates who are selected and trained to train the dogs in a variety of commands and obedience skills. This part of the program was one of the things that initially drew Gaspard to it.
“The reason I chose it and we decided to go with it is because it trains with inmates,” she said. “it gives them jobs skills for when they’re out and they’re reintegrated into society — they have dog training, grooming and very minimal dog medical skills so they can have a solid foot to land on when they finally get back into society.”
After Dottie spent her 12 weeks getting trained, Gaspard eventually joined Dottie in Florida to complete the last stage of their training. This training included practicing Dottie’s basic and advanced commands as well as testing Dottie in a variety of public settings from malls and restaurants to large crowds, pet stores and more.
“We have to make sure that we know how to handle them in public and that they’re not going to react adversely to loud noises or kids running up on them or whatever general society brings at us,” Gaspard said. “It’s a little bit more than your typical house pet — I know a lot of people will train their dogs really well in this area — but she has to be able to follow her handler’s commands. And I have to be able to read her if I can tell she’s starting to get overwhelmed or exhausted or she is just at the end of her rope where I need to get her out of that situation before something could happen.”
One of the best parts of this class and training, Gaspard added, was hearing from the other law enforcement agencies who were recertifying or certifying new therapy dogs to join their existing team of dogs. These individuals, were adamant about how much value the therapy dogs can bring to the communities they serve, she said.
“One of the instructors was choked up because she was just that positive that this dog will make a difference in our community,” Gaspard said.
During the Paws & Stripes class, Dottie was deemed the “ruling princess” and continues to seek out “all the attention in the world,” Gaspard said, further describing her as a “super energetic” dog that “loves to be in people’s laps, getting pets and sniffing ground squirrels.”
And overall, Gaspard said Dottie is “above and beyond what I expected.”
While Dottie is still new on the job, Gaspard has already experienced some small glimpses into the impact that the new canine officer will bring to Avon and Eagle County.
“I had her in the school the other day to meet the teachers and I have a trainee with me and one of the Autistic kids is terrified of us in uniform, but as soon as he saw that dog, he came over and his eyes brightened up and he had absolutely no problem with me and my partner at that point in time,” Gaspard said.
Harrison-Garcia added that on the day Dottie came through to meet the school’s staff that the “joy and excitement in the room was noticeable.”
Gaspard also noted a few other interactions where the Dottie allowed Gaspard to connect with community members. Going forward, she’s excited to experience more moments of impact.
“Even those little itty bitty interactions have brightened somebody’s day, so to know in the future that we’re really going to be able to help people in whatever aspect they need help in is really exciting to me,” she said.
“I’m really looking forward to the ‘a-ha moment.’ I feel passionately about this program as it is, but I’m waiting for that one time where that kid says, ‘This is exactly what I needed today,’ or I can help a victim.”