Officer Emily Tebo discusses the potential comfort dog program during the June 18 Select Board meeting.
Reminder Publishing screen capture by Tyler Garnet

SOUTH HADLEY — The Police Department may soon be getting a furry new member after the Select Board approved fundraising efforts for a comfort dog program.

The dog would be privately owned but the Police Department is looking to raise about $10,000 for training and certifying the comfort dog team, food and equipment.

Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen said the department has been talking about a comfort dog program for about three years. Timing, staffing and the coronavirus pandemic were all factors that led to the delay of this program.
Gunderson said that after meeting with colleagues and supervisors about adding a comfort dog program, she realized it could be beneficial.

She added, “One thing that was brought up was we’re so strapped for funding, we really try very hard to prioritize and we envisioned the funding we [might] be looking for a couple of years in the future before we’d be able to do this, but some other police departments have been very successful with doing some fundraising.”

The Select Board’s approval of the gift account allows for fundraisers and spend funds on fundraising.

Comfort dogs can help build trust in the community by being present at community policing events as well as help calm victims down during interviews or difficult times, according to Amherst Police Officer Bill Laramee who brought a comfort dog program to his respective department in 2020.

He added, “The value they can bring to both the community they serve as well as internally what goes on in police departments, improving morale, community trust, recruitment, retention. Looking for ways how can we better connect with the community, how can we improve morale within the department.”

Patrol Officer Emily Tebo is a part of the South Hadley crisis intervention team and will be the handler when the South Hadley Department receives a comfort dog.

Tebo brought the idea to Gundersen three years ago and she explained her vision when the time comes.
Once trained, the dog will go on routine patrol with Tebo and respond to all calls for service, including those involving members of the public who may be in crisis.

“My vision is to have the dog in the cruiser with me much like building relations in the community. Somebody’s in crisis, families in crisis, a domestic violence situation that dog is going to be a bridge from the dog to us. Science is there, it reduces blood pressure, and everyone calms down when they see a dog,” Tebo said.
Tebo added that she has only heard positive reviews of neighboring communities who have introduced a comfort dog program.

The South Hadley Police Department has received many donations to help start the program, including one from the Hadley Police Department to help outfit an old cruiser to accommodate for a dog.

Food and vet care are both being donated as well.

Tebo said a few fundraising ideas she currently has is stickers or patches of the dog as well as a potential pickleball tournament, but nothing is finalized, and she is still looking for plans.

Laramee also talked about the benefits of installing a comfort dog program based on his experiences with his department comfort dog, Auggie.

He said, “It’s been transformational in terms of what we’ve been able to do in the community and Amherst is a tough place to work if you’re an officer. It’s hard to gain community trust. The relationship we have with our school system is evolving so I think [Auggie] really has been the segue to allow me to be present in our schools.”

Laramee added he works a lot with the University of Massachusetts Amherst and college students who “don’t make good decisions” but having Auggie have allowed him to have tough conversations.

“His role is kind of community focused. Some other agencies you may see them in and around assigned to an officer and they’re out on patrols and respond to calls. It’s really an invaluable tool. I can’t speak enough about it. I’ve helped many different communities and they are all used in different capacities but they all bring a similar value at the end of the day which is making that connection,” Laramee said.

For those who wish to donate, checks should be made out to the town of South Hadley with “comfort dog” written in the memo section and can be dropped off in the lobby of the Police Department.