Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Paws & Stripes College Receives National Acclaim
By Maria Sonnenberg, Space Coast Daily // June 18, 2017
Paws and Stripes College trains shelter dogs
Furry Miracle Workers Create Formidable Positive Connection Between Prison Inmates, Animal Services and Law Enforcement
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Were it not for the fact that Primus is a dog, he would make a perfect wedding planner. Genial, engaging, thoughtful and consistently happy and caring, Primus would put even folks with pre-wedding jitters at ease.
The wedding industry’s loss is law enforcement’s gain, for Primus is a highly-regarded therapy dog with the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office and served as a model for a very successful program that has law enforcement agencies around the country clamoring for dogs like him.
Primus was the first graduate of Paws and Stripes College, designed by the Sheriff’s Office to find a valuable purpose for formerly castoff canines, while training inmates for jobs after release from prison and providing law enforcement agencies with highly trained canine “personnel” that can help with the business of crime solving.
As a puggle, or a mix between a pug and a beagle, Primus is not keen on tracking, as a bloodhound would be, or intent on keeping the peace, as police department German shepherds are trained to act.
He is, however, a master at destressing the stressed out, just what the doctor ordered when working with victims or witnesses, particularly the young and the old.
Primus lives with his trainer, Corporal Jessie Holton, who is responsible for the curriculum of the popular Paws and Stripes College.
He and fellow Paws and Stripes staff members Cpl. Ken Lampp, Deputies Tara Fay and Lisa Mick and Specialist Clara Mutter do the “finishing” training on former shelter dogs schooled in obedience with the help of local inmates.
The inmates are trained in grooming and dog handling and receive a certificate for their efforts. The experience helps them develop responsibility and prepare for a job working with animals, perhaps in a kennel or veterinary setting.
Dogs who, like Primus, graduate with flying colors, go on to work with law enforcement agencies. Primus and his pal, Murphy, are assigned to the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, while fellow graduates have gone on to assist law enforcement personnel in police departments throughout the state.
Paws and Stripes College has been so successful that law enforcement agencies around the country are sending their staff and their own shelter dogs to train in Brevard.
“It has been strictly word-of-mouth, but so many agencies are asking for dogs now that we’ve had to increase the number in each class,” said Holton.
Just as amazing as the work the canines perform is the cost to taxpayers: zero. The program is funded by the profits from the jail’s commissary, so every candy bar or potato chip bag purchased by the inmates goes towards making Paws and Stripes happen.
Therapy Dog Changes Senario
In a general sense, therapy dogs such as those who visit hospitals and nursing homes, just need be friendly. Therapy dogs in the law enforcement field have more complex duties. They are particularly helpful with children who are victims or witnesses of a violent crime such as a homicide or sexual abuse.
“In Florida, forensic interviews with children are restricted to one interview, which can be very hard for the child and for the detectives,” said Holton.
“The detectives are given 45 minutes or an hour to interview the child, who is faced with talking about some very intimate and scary details of a crime with strangers. It is no wonder they don’t want to talk.”
Add a therapy dog and the scenario changes.
“We have documented a significant increase in disclosures because the dogs make the children feel at ease,” said Holton.
The dogs have to know how to make the person feel good because so much depends on their success.
“Stress reduces cognitive ability,” said Holton.
“The less stress, the better the victim or witness will remember what happened. Dogs put people in such a comfort zone so they are better able to remember what happened.”
‘You Got Me’
The animals are even useful with suspects, helping to catch them off guard. Holton recounted a suspect that had immediately engaged with the dog until detectives began questioning him about the crime.
The individual began shoving the dog away even though it was repeatedly trying to engage. In the end, the suspect gave a full confession.
“You got me,” he admitted when the detectives noted his reaction to the dog.
Paws and Stripes College trains 80 to 100 shelter dogs a year, of which 15 to 20 go on to become therapy dogs. Dogs who for some reason or another just don’t cut it in the program are available free of charge to veterans, first responders and families with disabled individuals.
“They go to people who can really benefit from the dogs,” said Holton.
The animals train in the county’s old prison building in Cocoa, where the former inmate dorms have been retrofitted as kennels and a mock apartment has been created to teach the animals to be comfortable in any situation that presents itself.
Both male and female inmates are included as their handlers, to keep dogs from developing fear of men or women.
The dogs receive two to three hours of training seven days a week, at least four hours of play time, and tons of personal attention. Hounds who were once abandoned and neglected now think they’ve died and gone to heaven and so eager to please.
Partnering With Florida Tech
Students from Eastern Florida State College veterinary technician program handle their routine medical needs, so the animals are always in tip-top shape.
After graduating from eight weeks of basic obedience, the animals go on to a 40-hour course with their new handlers, who will be responsible for the animals 24/7 after graduation.
Handlers expose the dogs to all possible scenarios so nothing will ever unnerve the dogs in their new career.
“We expose them to young people and old people, to people with disabilities, to all types of populations at all types of places,” explained Holton.
The canine college also recently entered into a partnership with Florida Tech to help train students who want to use canine therapy as part of their counseling efforts.
“The students will be able to get the dogs for free so they can use them in their work,” said Holton.
Create Formidable Positive Connection
Size or breed does not matter in the creation of the perfect therapy animal. What is important is the size of the heart. Tiny chihuahua Sebastian has made as good a therapy dog as 100-pound-plus hound Rocky.
“It’s not a certain shape or size, but a certain personality,” said Holton.
These furry miracle workers have created a formidable positive connection between prison inmates, animal services and law enforcement.
“People are amazed at what we are able to do,” said Holton.
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