BY KAREN STURTEVANT
Special to the Observer
Where do you find comfort? Is it in a trusted family member or friend, at the bottom of a pint of ice cream, during a sweaty physical workout or perhaps after a good cry?
When I was a toddler, my mother gave me “red blankie.” I carried that thing everywhere, giving me comfort. My anxious rescue dog takes her choice of stuffed animals with her when we venture into the world. Whether it’s a pink primate we named Creepy Monkey or a small white cat called Kitty Kitty, she’s comforted with her little buddy.
Dog lovers know the value of having a cherished companion in our lives. With a wagging tail and soulful eyes, they are always happy to be with us. Never judgmental, always endearing. The bond created is much like that of child and parent. Simply being near a friendly dog brings solace.
When the possibility of pioneering a comfort dog program in the Williston Police Department arose, Officer Matthew Cohen, a 10-year department veteran, was intrigued. When Williston Police Chief Patrick Foley gave the green light for the program, the search for the perfect canine began.
The functions of a comfort dog are to provide interaction during situations involving children and adults impacted by violence, tragedy or traumatic events and to reduce anxiety and increase communication between the victim/witness and investigators.
The pursuit would conclude in May 2020 when Officer Cohen drove to the highly regarded Boonefield Labradors in Rindge, N.H., to welcome an eight-week-old fluffball. Known for their charity and quality of English Labradors, owners Peggi and David Brogan have gifted several puppies to law enforcement agencies. Duke was number eleven.
I recently met with Duke and Officer Cohen to learn what this pup’s first year has been like, the triumphs and challenges.
We greeted at the gazebo in front of Williston Central School, where Duke has been a regular guest. On this sunlit day, Duke was wearing his official neon green-and-black dog-in-training vest along with a shiny gold badge affixed to his collar. Gone was the furry puppy. In his place, a mature, blocky-headed handsome canine.
Duke busied himself with chewing sticks and tree bark pieces while trotting from person to person. Photographer Kelly Hinds made duck sounds to get his attention and snapped photos — lots of photos.
Despite restrictions due to the pandemic, the past year has been productive. The team has been in attendance with regular training sessions at Thin Blue Line K9 under the supervision of owner Tom Radford. First came basic puppy obedience, then agility activities to build confidence and finally exposure training intended to confront any fears.
“We have a very confident, young dog here,” Officer Cohen said.
A goal for Duke is to receive certification in therapy dog work. Potential therapy dogs are screened, evaluated and trained in order to attain certification. Deb Helfrich at Gold Star Dog Training has been preparing the team with lessons in developing new skills needed for his designation.
Duke will be asked to show his skills in obedience and basic commands, conduct impulse control with other dogs and control his tendency to be overly excited when people approach him. The Golden Rule: four feet on the floor. Boonefield Labradors is an affiliated partner with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international registry of certified therapy dog teams. Officer Cohen and Duke may travel to Duke’s birthplace for their testing.
Duke’s primary job is to be himself and in doing so, bring smiles and help relieve stress in upsetting situations. The comfort dog is a valuable tool in fostering dialog and communications between the police department and the community.
Duke’s first mission was to visit the Vermont National Guard and Vermont Food Bank while the staff was issuing ready-to-eat meals to the public. He’s helped children feel loved after their parent was arrested, soothed the nerves of crash victims, consoled first responders after the loss of one of their own and helped relieve tensions of students and staff as they returned to school in the fall of 2020.
“Just for a few minutes of taking someone’s mind off what just happened, what they just witnessed, is important,” Cohen said. “Sometimes he acts like a goofy Lab, other times he’s stoic and calm and just there. It’s very interesting as his handler to watch.”
Being the first law enforcement agency in Vermont to offer a comfort dog program is uncharted territory. Cohen keeps records on Duke’s accomplishments and training. The first year of service was active with 117 total deployments (29 school visits, 68 community engagements and 20 emergency responses).
One noteworthy case involved Duke rendering comfort on the side of a road. After a driving-under-the-influence stop where a parent was arrested, Duke stayed with two children who were passengers in the car. Duke remained with the children roadside until the other parent arrived. Upon follow-up by the Vermont Department of Children and Families, the children recall interacting with Duke, not the arrest of the parent.
“You can’t put a number on how much that interaction helped those kids though that process. What could have been a traumatic event with a parent being arrested became a positive interaction with a dog,” Cohen said.
Police work is anything but predictable. The same can be said for Duke’s daily schedule. He and Cohen find themselves in a variety of locations. Duke was utilized with staff and students at Williston Central School after the untimely death of a student. The team continued ongoing support for three days. They have visited vaccination clinics, the emergency department at the University of Vermont, numerous classrooms, first responder meetings and homes to provide support to both adults and children during times of grief.
Victims or witnesses leave the experience feeling better than when Duke arrived.
“Most of policing is negative reinforcement. You do something bad, you get a consequence. This is positive reinforcement. Police show up, Duke and I interact with someone and they leave feeling happier,” said Cohen.
The program is fully funded through donations. Along with complementary training from Thin Blue Line K9, Guy’s Farm & Yard is donating a lifetime of food, Mountain View Animal Hospital provides medical care at a discounted rate and Community Bank has donated funds. For Duke’s first birthday, Cohen streamed the party live. With a seemingly endless pile of toys and treats, it was obvious Duke had reached celebrity status. It was at the end of the party that Police Chief Patrick Foley awarded Duke his badge.
“This program is what some agencies see as a luxury. Others, like ours, see it as a need. There is a need to get to that crisis response. There is a need to get to first responders after they’ve witness a fatal car crash to help them work though it. There’s that need. There are a lot of unseen benefits,” said Cohen.
At the end of each shift, Duke rides home with Cohen. His leisure time is spent acting as a shadow and playmate to Cohen’s 4-year-old daughter. Big brother Cooper provides canine interaction while Duke decompresses into domestic dog bliss.
Duke and Cohen have gently interwoven themselves into the heart of this community. Duke is the top ticket performer; Cohen is the manager. The first comfort dog program in Vermont has been an astounding success.
I still have my “red blankie” now, with more holes and tatters than actual blanket. I sometimes still wrap myself in it on difficult days. For times calling for more than a cotton blanket, Duke will be there. One dog cannot save the world from tragedy. He cannot undo a terrible circumstance. But Duke can offer the best of himself with his gentle nature and sweet disposition — gifts that will stay with the recipient long after Duke has left to begin his next comfort mission.