New Groton Town Police dog is focused on helping officers, community
Groton — As Groton Town Police Officer Heather McClelland chatted with a resident at the Groton Public Library on Thursday, McClelland petted the department’s new service dog, McDonald, who was snuggled up next to her.
“Want to come sit next to me and pet him?” McClelland asked the resident’s 3-year-old son, and the child walked over from his mother’s lap to McDonald and smiled as he petted the black lab.
Since McDonald arrived last month in Groton to serve alongside McClelland, the department’s community policing officer, the pair have been a visible presence in the community.
McClelland said the 2-year-old black lab, who sports a vest with a Groton Police patch while on duty, not only serves as an ice breaker for starting conversations with the community, but is focused on officer wellness at the department.
Through the Puppies Behind Bars program, McDonald was trained by women in a New York prison to be a service dog to help people with stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, and is the organization’s first service dog to serve an entire police department, McClelland said.
McDonald’s journey to Groton
McDonald’s journey to Groton began at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, a maximum security prison in upstate New York, where he was trained through Puppies Behind Bars. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1997, trains prisoners to raise service dogs for first responders and war veterans, said the organization's president and founder, Gloria Gilbert Stoga. The organization also trains bomb-sniffing dogs for law enforcement.
Stoga said McDonald, a black lab with soulful brown eyes, who is confident, mellow and quiet, is well suited as a service dog.
McDonald entered the prison at 18 weeks of age, and Crystal, the inmate who served as McDonald's “puppy raiser,” was responsible for him until he was nearly 2 years old, teaching him more than 90 commands and socializing him, she said. In addition, Puppies Behind Bars volunteers socialize the dogs by taking them outside to the community around the prison and then into the hustle and bustle of Manhattan on the weekends.
Stoga said the program instills confidence and self-growth in the women training the dogs.
“For two years, Crystal put her heart and soul into McDonald,” Stoga said.
This summer, McClelland and a group of five first responders and veterans trained for two weeks in the prison to learn from the inmates how to take care of the dogs and give commands that the dogs learned to help people with stress or PTSD. McClelland said all the women were so passionate about caring for the dogs and excited they were going to help people.
Each day, one inmate shared a story of being caught up in bad circumstances and what brought them to the prison. At the end of the day, when the group would sit with the dogs and talk about what they had learned and how much they appreciated the experience, everyone was in tears, McClelland said.
“I’ve always liked to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I like to think I see the best in people, but it’s made me think about my preconceived notions about things and people and situations, and I think the whole program just kind of took all of us by surprise with how personal it became,” McClelland said of the experience. “Like I told Crystal, ‘I’m going to keep pushing the message that you guys are pushing on to us that we can do good things and make things better for the people down the line,’ so I promised her that we’d keep doing that.”
McDonald was named after New York City Police Department Detective Steven McDonald, who had shared his message of forgiveness, rehabilitation and making the most of one’s life with the women at Bedford Hills, McClelland said.
In 1986, during a rash of bike robberies in New York City, the New York police officer had pulled over three youths on bikes in Central Park, and one of them pulled out a gun and shot him, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, Stoga said.
McDonald traveled to prison to meet and forgive the teenager, Stoga said. McDonald wrote a letter to the parole board, after nine years, that he forgave the teen and nothing would be served by keeping him in prison any longer.
McDonald went around the world speaking about the importance of forgiveness and kindness, Stoga said.
When he died in 2017, the inmates were getting ready to welcome a new litter of puppies and chose one as the detective’s namesake, McClelland said.
“When the puppies were born they decided that he should be named after Detective McDonald, who came and talked to them about all the amazing things that they could do and that they were doing with the program,” McClelland said. “So we’re trying to live up to the legacy and do good things, and we were lucky enough to meet detective McDonald’s wife and son, who’s a sergeant with the NYPD, and they’re excited that he’s doing this kind of work helping other people and helping officers in particular.”
At the graduation ceremony in August, during an emotional speech about Detective McDonald’s legacy, McClelland said the dog started to nuzzle and comfort Detective McDonald’s wife and son.
After the graduation, members of the NYPD stopped one by one to thank Crystal and shake her hand, which deeply touched her, Stoga said.
McClelland said the dog’s upbringing in prison hammered home Detective McDonald’s legacy of forgiveness and “also keeping your mind open and being willing to see beyond what you see.”
Officer wellness, helping the community
At the police department, McClelland said McDonald's presence helps soothe first responders' stress, whether he's curling up in the lap of a dispatcher for a couple of minutes or chasing a ball down the hallway.
“First and foremost, it’s bringing relief to our officers that deal with stress and trauma on a daily basis,” McClelland said of McDonald's role. "I think sometimes people think of PTSD or trauma as being like one big incident and for us and for fire and EMS and other first responders, it’s a cumulative stress that really happens and so our goal is to just kind of help that along on a day to day.”
McClelland, who is in charge of the department's officer wellness program, said a service dog is another option for officer wellness, along with supports such as therapeutic services, mindfulness, yoga and working out.
Groton Town Police Chief L.J. Fusaro said the department is excited to be given the opportunity by Puppies Behind Bars to be among the first police departments to have a dog trained specifically to address officer wellness. Other agencies in Connecticut and surrounding states have already contacted the department to ask how they can start a similar program.
McDonald and McClelland have become a team and have quickly made connections with the department’s officers and dispatchers, as well as a host of members of our community, he said.
“They have even worked with victims of crime and helped to offer some comfort to those who have suffered trauma, and we have offered to assist other area public safety agencies should the need arise,” he said.
“While it is still early in this program as McDonald has only been with us since August, he has already established connections in the community and been embraced by our department members as well as so many others during their trips to the library, senior center and schools,” Fusaro added. “I feel confident that there will be many other opportunities for Officer McClelland and McDonald to strengthen ties between the department and the community as a whole. This is just one added benefit beyond the wellness aspect — but certainly a very beneficial one.”
The pair go to events around the community, maintain twice weekly office hours in the teen room at the Groton Public Library, visit support groups at the senior center, and will teach DARE in the schools this fall.
"McDonald has such a gentle disposition that for most people, especially dog lovers, encountering him in the presence of Officer McClelland starts an instant conversation, and we welcome that," said Deputy Chief of Police Paul Gately.
“He has already proven to be a tremendous asset to the department, and we are very proud to have him as a member of the team especially considering the legacy that he represents,” Gately added.
McClelland said that when she and McDonald walk through the door, people don’t even see her uniform, all they see is a dog and they start asking questions about him or taking out their phone to show photos of their own dogs, she said.
“It kind of just levels out the playing field, and we can talk about whatever it is that they’re interested in,” McClelland said.
Stoga said that McDonald and McClelland were found to be a match during the training.
“Heather is calm and steady,” Stoga said. “Heather is extremely dedicated to doing things right, and Heather’s really on top of it. She’s not going to cut corners, and I just thought that given McDonald’s steadiness and given Heather’s steadiness that the two of them would be right together.”
McClelland said she has been enjoying her time with McDonald.
“I feel like I’m maybe making more of an impact now than I was before even with this job, so it feels good to see that just in interactions with people,” McClelland added. “So by making other people feel good, I definitely absorb that.”
McClelland and McDonald are scheduled to be at the following events:
Coffee with a Cop: 10-11:30 a.m. Oct. 2, Chelsea Groton Bank (1319 Gold Star Highway)
Groton Fall Festival: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 5, Poquonnock Plains Park
Safe Futures 4k: 9 a.m.-noon Oct. 6, Crystal Mall, Waterford
Bumpers & Books (Halloween treat event): 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Oct. 19, Groton Public Library
Chili Cook Off (First Responder Competition): 5-7 p.m. Oct. 19, Groton Senior Center
McClelland and McDonald have office hours at the Groton Public Library: 3-6 p.m. Monday, 1-4 p.m. Thursday
McDonald also has an Instagram page: @ofcmcdonald_grotonpd