Date July 29, 2023
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Comfort dogs converge on Brown to share the power and potential for campus K9 programs

Brown’s Department of Public Safety hosted a Cops and Comfort Dogs Symposium, welcoming law enforcement personnel and community members alike.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Over the course of 22 years on the Harvard University Police Department, Officer Steven Fumicello has collected a wide range of experiences. Yet nothing compares to the past year, when he welcomed Sasha, the university’s first community engagement dog.

“I’ve done just about every job on the force and this, by far, is the best thing I’ve done,” Fumicello said. “She has definitely built a bridge to engaging with the community. She’s part of the Harvard community now.”

Fumicello talked about his experience on Saturday, July 29 — not at Harvard, but at Brown University, where he and Sasha joined handlers and their dogs from more than 30 agencies across New England and beyond who gathered for the third annual Cops and Comfort Dogs Symposium. It marked the first time the event was hosted by Brown’s Department of Public Safety, which welcomed its own comfort dog, Elvy, late last summer.

“This gives departments the chance to share the range of what these dogs can do,” said Campus Police Officer Dustin Coleman, Elvy’s handler at Brown. “This only improves how we do our job in law enforcement.”

The daylong symposium included morning sessions for law enforcement officers, followed by an afternoon community event for people to meet the dogs, ask questions and play outside. The joyful event took place on Brown’s College Green, which was cordoned off with a yellow rope for the dogs to frolic freely, chase balls, prance after frisbees and enjoy attention from community members, as intermittent clouds provided some respite from the summer heat.

Presenters during the morning sessions in nearby Sayles Hall included officers from the New York Police Department’s emotional support dog program, as well as comfort dog handlers from police departments in Waterford and Groton, Connecticut. Speakers tackled topics ranging from how comfort dogs can best provide stress reduction and mental health support, to ways that dogs can help officers engage with kids, to tactics to garner support and address skepticism about comfort dog programs among fellow law enforcement officers.

For attendee Kristen Brousseau, a K9 officer with the Connecticut Department of Correction, the symposium affirmed her work with her dog, Semper Fi, who has been helping her improve staff wellness since April.

“If there’s a major incident at a facility like a staff assault, a staff death or an inmate suicide, we’ll go out with the team and Semper Fi is that bridge that creates conversation and gets people to open up,” Brousseau said. “At least once a day I hear the words, ‘I needed this’ and ‘I didn’t realize how much I needed this,’ so being able to visit staff and give them that mental health break from their day has been the most rewarding.”

The symposium was also an opportunity for law enforcement agencies without dogs to explore comfort dog programs and learn more — attendees included people like Patrol Officer Shaun Wilson from the Tiverton Police Department in Rhode Island.

“I liked learning how some of them work with schools but some also help their department members with stress,” Wilson said. “I feel like I could do both… We also have veterans in our community and people with mental health issues, and a comfort dog really helps.”

School Resource Officer Wes Lemar from the Portsmouth Police Department was eager to learn more and imagine ways a comfort dog program could enhance his work with students in middle and elementary school.

“This is a first step to come and see what it’s all about,” Lemar said. “I think it’s a great idea, and seeing all the community things that they go to just adds to it. And internally, I think it would be great for morale, having a dog around the department.”

A day with the dogs

During the early-afternoon public portion of the event, a steady stream of people visited the College Green and mingled in Sayles Hall, including Brown Class of 2012 alumnus Zach Duhaime, who attended the event with his wife, Anna, and their 19-month-old son, Joseph, who is a big fan of dogs.

“We live in Lincoln, [Rhode Island], and we heard about this,” Anna Duhaime said. “We have a dog at home and this is just a chance for Joseph to see the different dogs. He’s loving it, which is nice.”

Lisa Maffeo and her children Charlie, 13, and Lizzie, 15, travelled more than an hour from Oakdale, Connecticut — and it was worth the journey, they said. Charlie, who has autism, relates well to dogs and is an avid follower of the various comfort dogs in the region through his mom’s Instagram account.

“They are so cute,” Lisa Maffeo said as the officers lined up a big group of dogs along the stage in Sayles Hall for a group portrait. “I wish I could lay down with them.”

In addition to quality time with the dogs, community attendees visited information tables in Sayles Hall and got drinks and treats from food trucks outside. Among the organizations on hand for the event was Puppies Behind Bars, which trains incarcerated individuals to raise service dogs for wounded war veterans, first responders and law enforcement officers. Puppies Behind Bars is the group that trained Elvy, along with her classmate, Sasha.

“She’s there for good times, but she’s also there for somebody who is having a bad day,” Fumicello said, referring to Sasha’s role at Harvard. “The program is really about trying to improve somebody’s day.”

Coleman, who has served in the community engagement division at Brown DPS for several years, said Elvy’s first year on the job has been transformative.

“It’s really opened up doors and relationships this year,” Coleman said. “I’m being invited to places. I get a better idea of what’s going out there, and people feel comfortable sharing information with me. I’ve never worked with the campus community as much as I do now.”