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Some police stations are using dogs to help victims and officers with trauma

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When someone mentions police dogs, it often brings to mind big, scary canines. But some police dogs provide comfort. KUER's Ciara Hulet met some.

CIARA HULET, BYLINE: The Orem police station is just south of Salt Lake City, Utah. It's a small department with a playful new addition.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOY SQUEAKING)

AIZA STEVENS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG GROWLING SOFTLY)

HULET: This is Hoku. She's 3 months old.

STEVENS: Sit. Yes. Good girl.

HULET: Hoku is a fox red lab with adorable chocolate-brown eyes, and very curious.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUD)

HULET: Hey, don't eat the mic.

Aiza Stevens is a victim advocate with the department and Hoku's handler. She's looking forward to how Hoku will help in Orem once she's trained.

STEVENS: We've been to a lot of suicides, and a lot of times, there's young kids involved. And I think bringing a calm, even-tempered dog could help them relax a little bit more.

HULET: Studies show that a dog's presence really does calm and comfort people after a traumatic event, and that helps them to focus and communicate more openly. The Salt Lake City Police Department has seen this time and time again.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG SNIFFING)

HULET: Rita is their highly trained and extremely calm black lab.

CARI BOBO: Speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

HULET: And the person giving commands is her handler, Cari Bobo. She's a victim advocate and has worked with Rita for four years.

BOBO: There was a victim who walked into the public safety building here who was Spanish speaking only. She had a lot of black-and-blue bruises all over her. So I came down. I do not speak Spanish, but I brought Rita down with her, and she just cried and held Rita while we waited for somebody to come and interpret. And Rita just sat there very calmly. And then when we went to the protective order hearing, Rita jumped right on the bench next to her and just sat there the whole time while she sobbed, and her paw sat on her leg the entire time.

HULET: Rita helps in court if a victim is nervous about giving testimony or being in the same room as the offender. She also goes out on police calls. Washington nonprofit Courthouse Dogs Foundation helps agencies and legal systems nationwide get dogs like Rita. They're called facility dogs. The number they've tracked has grown from four in 2008 to more than 300 this year. Lieutenant Michael Browett is with Reno, Nev.'s police department. He's the handler for Winter, a golden lab mix that they've had for a year and a half. Officers frequently bend down to pet her

MICHAEL BROWETT: When they stand up, they just let out this big sigh - you know, just a nice deep breath.

HULET: Browett says officers see hundreds, if not thousands, of stressful events over the course of their careers.

BROWETT: Winter is able to support you as you work through those emotions in such a nonjudgmental way.

HULET: He's also noticed a difference in how he interacts with the community when Winter is with him. Sometimes people can be intimidated by officers, but Winter is very approachable.

BROWETT: I don't even know that they see a police officer holding the leash, to be honest.

HULET: And victims, Browett says, sometimes need physical comfort.

BROWETT: And of course, it would be really awkward, certainly for a uniformed law enforcement officer, even a victim advocate, to just give a big hug. But Winter is able to bridge that gap.

HULET: That can make both the victim and the officer more comfortable.

You're so cute.

Hoku, the puppy in training in Orem, Utah, is already making a difference with station employees, handler Aiza Stevens says.

STEVENS: People are extra friendly with Hoku being around. I think it brings a lot of unity and heightens the morale in the police department.

You're spoiled. You have the best job in the world.

HULET: For NPR News, I'm Ciara Hulet in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "STILL TRILL (FEAT. METHOD MAN AND GRAFH)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ciara Hulet