INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — “It’s Gracie!” Dozens of students shouted as the 3-year-old, Labrador retriever-mix walked over to the playground during recess at Imagine Schools At South Vero.
Gracie and her handler, the school’s resource officer Sheriff’s Deputy David Partin, made their way through the crowd of children eagerly waiting to pet the dog.
The students adore Gracie, Partin said, and don’t hesitate to let the Indian River County sheriff’s deputy know if a day goes by and they didn’t get a chance to see their four-legged friend.
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“They see her walking by through the window, and I can hear them scream ‘Gracie!’ through the door,” Partin said. “So, I go in there. Because if not, I’ll hear about it.”
Gracie is the first K-9 therapy dog with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office, and the only on the Treasure Coast — now stationed at Imagine Schools At South Vero to be a calming presence for students facing anxious or stressful situations.
Therapy K-9s are dogs who volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes to improve the lives of other people, according to the American Kennel Club.
Law enforcement agencies across the country have been incorporating therapy K-9s to aid officers in daily tasks over the last few years with great success, said Sheriff Eric Flowers. So, the Sheriff’s Office began researching how to start a local program.
Turns out, there was a therapy K-9 training program just to the north in Brevard County called “Paws & Stripes College,” Flowers said.
Paws & Stripes College started as an obedience program to help save the lives of dogs in the local animal shelters who were trained by jail inmates, according to its website.
It has evolved over the last 15 years and now partners with police agencies to offer the “Law Enforcement & Multidiscipline Crimes Against Children Therapy Dog Training” — a 40-hour course that consists of behavioral observations, investigative interview techniques and therapeutic recovery with child victims.
Sheriff’s deputies traveled to Brevard County to see the program in action, Flowers said, and immediately fell in love with Gracie, a rescue who was surrendered by her former owners for being “too hyper.”
“Adding in the Gracie element, the dog element is just next level. The kids are even more drawn to (Partin) and more likely to talk to him,” Flowers said “Just that positive police interaction on a daily basis is so good for our community and so good for everyone.”
Gracie completed a 12-week obedience training program and officially joined the squad March 15.
Expenses of the program are next to nothing. The Sheriff’s Office received Gracie and her Paws & Stripes College training for free, Flowers said. A majority of the costs associated with therapy K-9s go toward equipment, such as a temperature stabilizing device inside deputies’ patrol cars.
As the school resource deputy, Partin brings Gracie along to assist in daily responsibilities such as doing parameter checks and helping parents with the morning drop-off.
Partin recalled one day that a first-grader did not want to go to school, hysterically crying and clinging to his mother in active refusal. The deputy asked the boy if he wanted to walk Gracie to his classroom; the student immediately perked up, took hold of Gracie and happily went inside.
“We’ve had a couple of issues, a couple of incidents where she’s been very helpful,” Partin said. “It kind of clicks with you a little bit like, ‘Wow, now I get it.’ This is exactly what she’s here for.”
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Gracie interacts with upwards of 400 students daily, Partin said.
She’s all business, too, he added. Gracie knows when it’s time to work, and be calm, and when it’s time to roughhouse at home after her shift is over.
In one word, Partin described his K-9 as “chill” — not too in-your-face or overbearing. Gracie was the perfect pooch to add onto the canine unit.
“There’s a lot of people that have anxiety about different things,” Partin said. “Gracie comes around, and you get to pet on her a little bit, and it just suppresses all that, at least for a little bit.”
Gracie is the second female to join IRCSO’s canine squad, said K-9 supervisor Deputy Brian Reimsnyder, in addition to Reimsynder’s 2-year-old bloodhound Willow, who serves as a search-and-rescue dog.
The Sheriff’s Office has a total nine active K-9s, including Gracie and Willow, seven of which serve as dual-purpose dogs that perform criminal apprehension and have detection discipline for the narcotics division and bomb squad, Reimsnyder said.
The canine unit undergoes 10 hours of “maintenance training” every Wednesday, Reimsnyder added, to keep their skills sharp.
Gracie has yet to join in on the weekly training, but Reimsnyder said he plans to incorporate her in the near future. Gracie’s therapy K-9 certification will need to be renewed every two years.
There are three additional K-9s undergoing the 480-hour schooling to work alongside law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Office is projected to have 12 K-9s active in the field by the end of the year.
Future of the program
Next school year, Gracie and Partin won’t be stationed at one school in particular. Rather, Flowers said the pair will visit with multiple, if not all, district schools day-to-day.
Flowers hopes that as the therapy K-9 program grows, a dog and handler could be permanently stationed at schools throughout the county — ideally ones where students are more prone to socioeconomic stressors and could benefit from a full-time emotional support animal the most, he said.
Therapy K-9s won’t just be in schools, though. Flowers sees the program expanding into other areas of law enforcement such as tense courtrooms or accompanying deputies responding to mental health crises.
After Gracie’s beneficial addition, Flowers knows the possibilities are endless.
“We’ve seen so many positive side effects that were not intended,” he said. “We’re just getting started. This is going to grow, there’s no doubt.”