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Denver police hope therapy dog will break down barriers

November 4, 2021 GMT
A 15-month-old Black English Labrador Retriever named Shelby and her handler, Denver Police Department Community Resource Officer Teresa Gillian, pose for a photograph after a swearing-in ceremony for the dog Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in downtown Denver. Shelby joins a handful of other therapy dogs on the force in an effort to make positive community connections. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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A 15-month-old Black English Labrador Retriever named Shelby and her handler, Denver Police Department Community Resource Officer Teresa Gillian, pose for a photograph after a swearing-in ceremony for the dog Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in downtown Denver. Shelby joins a handful of other therapy dogs on the force in an effort to make positive community connections. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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A 15-month-old Black English Labrador Retriever named Shelby and her handler, Denver Police Department Community Resource Officer Teresa Gillian, pose for a photograph after a swearing-in ceremony for the dog Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in downtown Denver. Shelby joins a handful of other therapy dogs on the force in an effort to make positive community connections. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER (AP) — The Denver Police Department’s first therapy dog was originally trained to be a guide dog, but she turned out to be too friendly to focus on helping one person.

Now the department is counting on the Black English Labrador Retriever’s outgoing nature to help it break down barriers and start conversations with people in high-crime areas and those wary of the police.

Shelby, an eager 19-month-old who will work with the downtown area’s community resource officer, Teresa Gillian, was officially sworn onto the force Thursday by Judge Renee Goble. Goble crouched down in her black robe to get on dog level for the quick ceremony as Shelby’s tail wagged.

Denver joins about 300 law enforcement agencies around the United States that have acquired therapy dogs for a range of duties, said Sgt. Jason Ratcliff of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio. The department was believed to be one of the first agencies to use therapy dogs when it first acquired them in 2017, he said.

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Some agencies use therapy dogs to accompany officers assigned to work in schools while others use the dogs to help officers who have suffered trauma or to help in community outreach, he said. Franklin County’s dogs are mainly used to work with victims of crimes, including accompanying children to court, he said.

Since arriving in Denver late last month, Shelby has already been accompanying Gillian on her work in the community, which involves visiting schools and senior residents and attending meetings and community events.

Chief Paul Pazen said Shelby would also be used in five areas of the city identified as hotspots for violent crime.

“Having her on the team and on the streets adds a level of comfort for our residents who may otherwise be hesitant to engage with a police officer,” Pazen said.

On a visit to an alternative school, one girl who said she had PTSD was interested in Shelby but a little scared, Gillian recalled. Seeming to sense the girl’s mood, the dog turned over on her back, offering up her belly to be scratched, and the girl relaxed, she said.

Gillian hopes the dog will help people get to know police as part of their community, rather than a group apart from it, following protests over the killing of George Floyd last year.

“Shelby is the tool to help us bridge that gap,” she said.