NORMAL — The Illinois State University Police Department is hiring a new officer — make that “pawfficer.”
ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff said the department is raising money for a community engagement dog to help “bridge the gap of trust between police and community.”
Sage, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever, is being trained at Supporting Independence through Teamwork (SIT) Service Dogs in southern Illinois.
“She's such a sweetheart,” said SIT program director Lex Dietz, no relation to ISU President Larry Dietz.
A crowdfunding page has been set up at https://hatch.ilstu.edu/project/15859 to raise the $4,000 needed for her specialized training, adoption and care.
About a year ago, the department started “doing some research on community engagement, looking at what other schools were doing,” said Woodruff.
They learned of a community engagement dog at Marquette University in Wisconsin and how well the program has worked, he said.
Students will come up to pet the dog and wind up talking with the officer, explained Woodruff. The dog also will be a good stress reliever for students and the department's staff and provide “comfort victims of crime,” he said.
Dietz, formerly of Bloomington, said a dog like this allows people “to feel they have a furry, nonjudgmental audience” and also makes police “more approachable.”
Marquette's dog, Nattie, has been working as its community outreach dog for nearly two years.
“The students love Nattie,” said Abby Cole, a communications specialist at Marquette, where the dog attends a variety of events.
The department had a birthday party for Nattie in April that students attended, Cole said. Nattie even has an Instagram account.
SIT trains dogs primarily as service dogs for children and adults with medical problems.
Dietz said Sage “is an incredibly kind and sweet dog” and “was slated to become a service dog. She could do the work.”
But, as Woodruff put it, Sage “was a bit too social.”
Some dogs are motivated by treats, others by personal attention and making people happy, explained Dietz.
Sage is the latter, said Dietz, and because she feeds on attention from others, not just her handler, that makes her a good community engagement dog but not as good as a medical service dog.
“She's really good at sussing out what people need,” said Dietz. “She's very intuitive, even for a dog.”
Sage has already gone through about 800 hours of training and will get an additional training focused on community engagement, said Dietz.
Part of Sage's training has taken place on the campus of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, so Woodruff noted she is “used to being around college students and out and about all day.”
Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota
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