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    Wednesday, September 27, 2023

    East Lyme therapy-dog-in-training already helping first responders decompress

    Public Safety Dispatcher Jon Leonard and Sophie, a 7 month-old golden retriever, Friday, June 2, 2023, outside the East Lyme Public Safety Building. Leonard will be training Sophie to be a public safety therapy K-9. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    East Lyme — Detective Jean Babcock’s on-the-job stress relief comes from 43 pounds of boundless puppy energy.

    The 6-month-old golden retriever named Sophie is in training to become the town’s first therapy dog dedicated to helping dispatchers, police officers and firefighters decompress from traumatic calls and cumulative pressures. Babcock said the puppy is already making a difference.

    A 29-year veteran of law enforcement, Babcock for most of the past decade has seen the worst society has to offer as the one who investigates most of the sexual assault and child sexual abuse cases in town.

    The good-natured cop, with energy to match her four-legged friend, said she takes Sophie for a walk each time their schedules overlap. That often happens in the afternoons as dispatcher Jon Leonard, Sophie’s owner, arrives with the dog at the same time Babcock’s day is winding down.

    “Right at 3 o’clock is about when I’ve had it,” she said. “Then I get Sophie.”

    Leonard said he hopes Sophie will be certified as a therapy dog when she turns 1 in November. The puppy, whom he purchased from Buck Family Farm in Warsaw, N.Y., when she was 8 weeks old, is currently receiving obedience training from trainer and part-time East Lyme police officer Shannon Warren.

    Leonard, a longtime dispatcher now working in East Lyme, said he sees the comfort dog as an immediate, low-key way to bolster mental wellness in the public safety field.

    “All the research will tell you that officers and first responders who are psychologically well are going to do a better job,” he said.

    Leonard said the concept is a departure from the “suck it up and deal with it” attitude that dominated much of his almost 30-year career in the public safety field.

    Babcock on Thursday said she was scheduled to attend a forensic interview later that morning for a case she’s working on. The intense process involves observing a social worker trained to sensitively elicit details from children in cases of alleged abuse.

    “Sophie, I’ll need you when I get back,” she told the dog.

    Police Chief Mike Finkelstein said Babcock’s job illustrates the need for sources of support like a therapy dog. He pointed to the stress inherent in building a case based on children’s traumatic experiences.

    “Watching those interviews repeatedly, going through them, picking apart those details over and over again, can create a psychological toll,” he said.

    Finkelstein said the dog’s “calming presence” is already benefiting the department even though she has not yet completed obedience training and is not old enough to be certified.

    “You see people come in who may be having a tough day, had a tough call. They’ll take a dog for a walk, pet the dog, play with the dog and it kind of makes them feel a little bit better,” he said.

    That goes for visitors to the department as well.

    Babcock recalled how Sophie helped calm a mother who was at the station with a teenage daughter accused of shoplifting. The dog, who was smaller at the time, sat in the mother’s lap and was held by the daughter as well.

    Leonard credited the puppy with the natural, canine intuition that lets her know someone is having a tough time. It’s a skill the dispatcher said he’ll be honing for himself through training next month on how to support fellow public safety personnel in times of crisis.

    “That will all tie in together,” he said. “You don’t have to have a dog to offer peer support, but I think, in general, peer support with a dog is even better.”

    K9 therapy dogs are not new to the area — one needs only look as far as Waterford or Groton Town to find them — but East Lyme is putting its own spin on the concept. Leonard owns Sophie and is paying for her training, though he said the department may seek help with that expense through a fundraiser.

    Finkelstein said K9 therapy dogs are typically part of community outreach programs designed to help officers engage with the community. He lamented that the department doesn’t have enough officers to allow him to devote one to community relations alongside a therapy dog.

    The department has 28 full-time officers and two part-time officers.

    “Jon really kind of brought us a solution that I think bridges a gap,” he said.

    The chief said the program envisioned by Leonard shows dispatchers aren’t just people answering phones. Getting Sophie certified in November will mean she can be on call in the event of a major incident such as a crash, fire or shooting.

    “Yes, he’s a dispatcher behind a desk, but it doesn’t mean we can’t bring in another dispatcher so Jon can go to that incident and have the dog out there for people,” he said.

    Finkelstein said the only financial impact to the department would come if additional staffing is needed to cover the dispatch center while Leonard is away from his desk at an incident.

    Babcock, asked how she copes with so many difficult cases at work, said she used to rely on one trip to Disney World per year to decompress. Now she has the puppy, who is expected to be 65 pounds when full grown, to share the weight.

    “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I just like to play with Sophie. That’s my release,” she said.


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