HANSON — The Hanson Police Department will soon be obtaining a new “officer” – a golden retriever comfort dog, to be used primarily in the schools.
Chief Michael Miksch said he expects the dog to make frequent visits to the Senior Center, where School Resource Officer Derek Harrington is also a liaison officer.
During his regular report to the Select Board, Miksch briefed members about the comfort dog program, a mental health clinician he is pursuing to share with three other area departments and an accreditation process, the department is now undergoing, and that he expects certification to be completed within a year and full accreditation “before I go.”
The Select Board unanimously approved the comfort dog program and related memorandum of understanding concerning the animal.
The department has been awarded a $5,000 grant from DA Timothy Cruz’s office for a comfort dog, which the schools had asked for, but, while the dog will be largely used by the School District, the grant is designed for police departments.
Miksch admitted he was skeptical at first, but has since seen the value of the dogs.
“If you asked me a couple of years ago, I would have been like, ‘There’s no way I’m buying a pet for the cops,’” he said. “Having a little bit more of an open mind and actually researched it a little bit more, these things are unbelievable.”
It can’t be called a therapy dog because the department can’t provide a service, but it can be used as a comfort animal.
“The way part of this started was the schools had mentioned they would really like one for the guidance office, but I told them, ‘I’m not ready to do that,’” he said. He looked into grants, which were for law enforcement. Cruz’s grant – funded through drug seizure money – will pay for the dog itself, even while it will spend most of its time in the schools.
A memorandum of understanding was negotiated with the union, where the main concerns were, how the dog would be used, who would care for it, and who would be responsible for any financial issues. They took no additional salary for it.
“My goal is for a $0 program for the taxpayers,” Miksch said, noting the training program receives a lot of public donations and officers are interested in doing side fundraisers. There will, however be liability and health insurance – perhaps about $2,000 a year – needed for the dog, but that can be covered through the regular police budget.
The department is working with Golden Opportunities for Independence (GOFI) which trains therapy and service dogs as well as comfort dogs.
Seven police K-9 comfort dogs –mainly from Norfolk County – are already in the program, working with schools.
For any remaining costs, Miksch said a couple people have already offered to make donations directly to GOFI, a 501 (c) 3 organization.
Select Board member Joe Weeks, who has worked with Children and Family Services said it will be a great morale booster for the town.
“There’s really no downside to what you’re doing,” he said.
Miksch said it would also be an asset for the senior center, where some people have expressed enthusiasm because, while they love dogs, they are unable to have a large dog anymore and would welcome a visit.
“I told officer Harrington he’s going to be the second-most popular person in town – after the dog,” Miksch said.
“Town Hall employees do need a little visit occasionally,” Select Board Chair Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett. “When she’s ready, we’d love to have a little visit.”
Miksch said the dog could stop by as early as next week.
After the dog’s service, it may remain with officer’s family unless there are training lapses or other problems.
The dog, a 5-month-old female is already showing a talent for tracking and can be used for soft track searches for missing autistic or elderly persons.
“We’re not sending Cujo out there with a muzzle on to find them and scare them,” Miksch said. “Foofy dog’s going to sit down next to them and lick them and they’ll be happy and everything will be wonderful.”
Miksch said he is also working with the towns of Carver, Plympton and Halifax to get a grant through Children and Family Services in New Bedford and Plymouth for crisis intervention that would fund a clinician at one of the three area stations to reduce the need to transport people to the hospital on psychiatric calls and for follow up when there is a need for mental health services.
“We’re cops,” he said “We know [when someone’s] not right or we know [they’’re] OK, and sometimes there’s a really big gray area,” he said. “This is going to help a lot.”
Accreditation process involves a review of 179 standards that have to be met by the department.
“The good news is, we do those things either in practice or in writing,” Miksch said. “But it’s time to put it all together in writing.”
There has also been changes in police officer training standards as part of the state’s police reform law, mandating certain changes, which Hanson is also following.
He said department regulations are also being updated, which hadn’t been updated since he was hired in 2013.