ELTOPIA, Wash. – When you think about police dogs it is usually a K-9 that comes to mind, a dog that hunts down bad guys and sniffs out drugs or bombs. However there is now a new effort get police therapy dogs in departments for the officers themselves.
Michelle Goenen is a retired/disabled police officer who knows first-hand the power of a police therapy dog.
“So I started my career in 2003 and it was the only thing I ever wanted to do,” said Goenen.
She was injured in the line of the duty several times and suffered traumatic brain injuries.
“I just felt like an outcast. I was told I’d never be a police officer again,” said Goenen.
Some of her injuries cannot be seen, though.
“I’ve been diagnosed with complex PTSI,” said Goenen. “I have depression. I struggle with anxiety. I was involved in several automobile collisions. So just getting in the car to go to town is sometimes crippling for me.”
At one point she was medically separated from a police department.
“I didn’t realize at the time how much stress that I had been through in my career that I had just bottled up,” said Goenen. “When that last head injury occurred it just opened up all those wounds of, um, some of the things cops don’t talk about.”
It’s estimated that 30% of first responders will develop behavioral health conditions like depression, PTSD or PTSI and anxiety. That’s compared to 20% of the general population, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health.
“Trauma is real,” said West Richland Police Commander Athena Clark. “PTSD is real. I actually prefer to, based on the research that I’ve done, prefer to call it PTSI because it is. It’s a post-traumatic stress injury.”
Goenen says she struggled to find resources when she needed help. For all of the best intentions, there was not much out there to help her at the time of her injuries. That is, until a furry friend stepped into the picture.
Enter, Service Peace Warriors: a non-profit organization that trains and pairs service dogs with veterans.
“Veterans, we know need help,” said Service Peace Warriors founder Mary Mattox. “We know they go to war. We know what they deal with. We all hear it. We don’t hear about the police. Okay, as Michelle talked about, stigma and so on. They’re human beings.”
Now, Mattox is working with people like Goenen and Commander Clark to get police therapy dogs into departments. Goenen’s was the first for an officer on the job before she retired.
“Chief Turner with Connell was super excited about this and super supportive,” said Goenen. “That dog not only helped me but the community as a whole.”
Goenen says the dog was there for her and the public with things like connecting with sex and domestic violence victims. The dog tends to make them more comfortable during investigations.
“It was like something just clicked with me and Mary,” said Goenen. “That these dogs can be utilized for so much more in an agency. For first responders, the medical field, people that are on the front lines.”
For Goenen specifically, she says her service dog saved her life. She says she wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.
“People just don’t understand the complexity of the call volume,” said Goenen. “The stresses. You’re going over what if I get ambushed.. what if.. there are so many unknowns. The public needs to understand you throw that at all of them eventually they’re going to crack.”
Commander Clark described what it’s like to see a comrade ‘crack.’
“It’s traumatizing. It’s hard,” said Commander Clark. “I don’t know anything other than it’s hard, heartbreaking because the people that I have seen crack… they’re all strong people.”
All three women in this story say that they have been diagnosed with PTSD or PTSI.
West Richland Police Department is working hard right now to get a police therapy dog in its building which will be the first in the state.
It is important to note that anytime you see a dog in a service vest it is working and you should not pet it.