Comfort in a crisis: Two therapy dogs join UIPD

URBANA-CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – Therapy K9s Lollipop and Winston will be making their debuts on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus this spring to help in crisis situations, in outreach programming and to comfort students who are dealing with high levels of stress or anxiety.

The two therapy dogs joined the University of Illinois Police Department’s Community Outreach and Support Team after they and their human handlers completed the Paws and Stripes training program through the Brevard County (Florida) Sheriff’s Department. Lollipop and Winston are the department’s second and third therapy dogs after U. of I. Police Chief Alice Cary brought K9 Archie with her when she started at UIPD in July 2020.

K9 Archie, who was adopted into the Paws and Stripes training program after escaping from Hurricane Dorian in 2019, has already been out and about quite a bit on campus with Chief Cary. Now Lollipop and Winston have joined the team to support students and make appearances.

Therapy dogs are a novel concept for police departments throughout the country – only a handful of departments in Illinois employ the use of therapy dogs. But they can lend comfort in a crisis when someone has experienced something terrible.

“Therapy dogs are a really good tool in trying to make connections, building rapport. Also, it breaks down some barriers,” said U. of I. Police Lt. Aaron Landers, who supervises the therapy dogs and works as Winston’s human partner. “Especially people in crisis, or people who are experiencing some serious trauma, there’s something almost magical about dogs.”

K9 Lollipop will be on patrol with Officer Alex Tran and available to provide comfort to victims and others involved in crisis situations. A lot of their work will deal with mental health crisis situations, as Lollipop and Tran are part of UIPD’s Response, Evaluation and Crisis Help team – or REACH, for short.

K9 Lollipop, UIPD officers and Savoy firefights deliver gifts to resident who were displaced by a fire on Dec. 24, 2020.

In her short time with the department, Lollipop has already had a major event.

A dog and police officers holding gift bags pose for a photo in front of an apartment complex.
K9 Lollipop, UIPD officers and Savoy firefights deliver gifts to resident who were displaced by a fire on Dec. 24, 2020.

It happened during a Christmas Eve fire in Savoy, Illinois, a town that neighbors the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. In his off-duty time, Officer Tran volunteers with the Savoy Fire Department and responded to an apartment fire on Dec. 24 that displaced a number of residents, including young children.

After the immediate danger of the fire was taken care of, Tran went home and swapped his Savoy Fire uniform for UIPD attire, grabbed Lollipop and returned to the scene.

“We hung out with the kids on the (warming) bus,” Tran said. “There was a little girl who lived in the apartment next door. They couldn’t get her cat out because it was hiding with all the noises and everything that was going on. So she bonded with Lollipop.”

Tran and K9 Lollipop – along with U. of I. Police Officer Doug Beckman and Savoy volunteer firefighters – returned later in the day to deliver Christmas gifts they had purchased for the residents displaced by the fire.

It is this type of crisis situation where the therapy dogs can provide some comfort.

“People experience things we should not experience. Sexual assault, domestic violence, things like that,” Tran said. “Just having that presence of the K9 there to get them through” is extremely helpful.

In Florida, therapy dogs were used in child advocacy centers where victims of suspected child abuse are interviewed. Before the therapy dogs were introduced, about 34 percent of the children interviewed disclosed to investigators that abuse was occurring in their home.

“They introduced the dogs – they didn’t change anything else but just introduced the comfort K9s, and they went to almost an 85 percent disclosure rate,” Landers said. “So there is something magical about, when people are in trauma or experience something terrible, dogs can really help out.”

That philosophy means therapy dogs make sense for a police department, because police are often the first people to get a call when someone is experiencing an emergency or crisis.

“Police officers are always there in those kinds of situations,” Landers said. “Problems where the worst things imaginable are happening to people, the police are always there. And so this is a tool for us to at least provide some comfort for people who are in crisis.”

Lollipop was planned, but Winston was an unexpected addition to the program. He had been a certified service dog earlier in his career but ended up in a shelter after his owner relinquished him. Winston was rescued when the Paws and Stripes trainers thought he would make a good candidate for their program.

K9 Winston visits with the Fighting Illini women's basketball team in January 2021.
K9 Winston visits with the Fighting Illini women’s basketball team in January 2021.

K9 Winston visits with the Fighting Illini women’s basketball team in January 2021.

When the latest Paws and Stripes class began in December, it appeared for a moment that Winston might have been headed back to the shelter. Winston had been paired with an officer from a different department, and Lt. Landers was just there as an observer since he would be supervising the UIPD therapy dogs.

But on the first day, Winston’s partner decided the pairing would not be a good match. And since Lt. Landers was there without a dog and Winston was there without a handler, the program coordinators suggested the two give it a shot. If the new match did not work out, it likely would have meant Winston was headed back to the shelter.

“Winston was a certified service dog, and so he had already been trained at a higher level than what we were looking for” in a therapy dog, Landers said. “So it would really have been a waste for him to go back to a shelter, because who knows what would have happened to him.”

Lucky for both of them, the bond was instant.

“As soon as we discovered each other, it was perfect,” Landers said. “He went right with me, he had no problem following commands. It was meant to be.”

Want to meet one of UIPD’s therapy dogs? Visit the Community Outreach and Support Team section of our website and click on the link to request a visit.