RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – When you hear the words “K-9 Officer,” a white, fluffy poodle probably isn’t the first image that comes to mind.
“Sometimes folks are like, I’m not sure if this is going to work, you know, it’s a law enforcement agency,” chuckled Jason Compton, a coordinator with the Wake County Sheriff’s Peer Support Team.
Compton, who is also a public safety IT architect with the agency, said he recently became partners with the WCSO’s first therapy animal named Winston after a local family donated him to the agency. He said the 1-year-old, white, fluffy poodle has already been making an impact on those he meets.
“The data really shows that interactions with these dogs make a real tangible difference for folks. We see lower blood pressure rates, lower heart rates, and lower levels of stress,” said Compton.
Compton said the support is needed as stress and high turnover rates continue to impact agencies. He said front-line workers, first responders, and those in public safety positions feel the impact of things like natural disasters, death and other traumatic events in the field on a regular basis.
“A lot of times, it’s the cumulative effect of those things day in and day out, and a lot of us have grown up in a generation where it’s kind of like, ‘Suck it up, buttercup,’ and we realize that that does not work anymore,” said Compton.
In addition to providing comfort, Compton said the agency’s Peer Support Team’s main mission is to help reduce the negative effects of stress while also sharing skills for professionals and their families to heal and cope.
“You have folks that have been through highly stressful situations that are doing their best to just brush it off and move on. Now they’re on the floor interacting with the dog and getting some relief and getting to talk with folks from our peer team like myself and our colleagues across the agency,” said Compton.
For Theresa Coyne, a 911 telecommunicator, the K9 has become a touch of home and a face she looks forward to seeing. She said, “Just having this nice, calming presence that comes in and it makes you take a breath so that you can keep going and keep working and keep helping.”
Coyne said answering dozens of emergency calls daily can come with a heavy weight and prioritizing mental health is extremely important. She added, “It can get stressful… You have to make sure that you are physically and mentally prepared and taken care of so that you can just jump in there to help a complete stranger whenever it’s needed.”
Compton said the Wake County Sheriff’s Office plans to expand the program. In addition to Winston, the agency plans to add three more therapy animals that will add an extra layer of support to additional local and state resources for mental health.
Looking at Winston, Compton smiled, “There’s definitely nothing better, obviously, than being essentially able to bring your dog to work.”
He said Winston is making a difference one cuddle and belly rub at a time.