Paws and Effect

Written by Amanda Myers Category: Valley News Issue: August 2011
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Police Crisis Intervention Specialist Anthony Pagliuca approached the young girl sitting cross-legged in the middle of the closed-down highway amidst the wreckage and asked her if she was OK with dogs. She nodded. He gave his partner, Fozzie, the all-clear, and Fozzie did what dogs do best – he sat his furry behind down in the girl’s lap. She leaned over to hug him and started to cry. Ten minutes went by, and finally, the girl spoke. “What’s this dog’s name?”

“Within 20 minutes, she was able to give us her mom’s name and phone number and we were able to help her,” says Pagliuca. “It was pretty powerful.”

Crisis experts like Pagliuca say that dogs have the amazing gift of providing comfort just by being a dog. No wonder they’ve been used to ease trauma for generations. In WWII, Red Cross nurses brought their own dogs into the hospitals to comfort wounded soldiers. There’s something innately, almost mystically trustworthy about a furry face that desires nothing more than an affectionate pat on the head.

Enter Fozzie, the first non-human member of Scottsdale’s Police Crisis Intervention Services, and the first full-time police crisis response canine in the nation. While nonprofit and volunteer organizations have long offered therapy and crisis dogs to police and fire departments across the country, Fozzie is uniquely dedicated, Pagliuca says. The dog puts in 40-plus hours a week with the Scottsdale PD and is constantly on-call. “He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” admits the 37-year-old Pagliuca, who shares his home with the five-year-old golden retriever.

The impetus for a crisis-canine program sprang from tragedy five years ago. Pagliuca, at the time a 17-year veteran of crisis counseling, found himself at one of his toughest calls: A SWAT team sergeant at a neighboring department had fallen to his death during a training exercise. Upwards of 50 SWAT operators and their families gathered at the hospital, distraught, and Pagliuca and his team did what they could. They brought food, listened and tried to provide comfort. But Pagliuca felt they could do more.

“There was a divide there,” he remembers. “I wasn’t with their department, and you’re not going to bare your soul for some random stranger.” He remembered the dogs from 9/11 that did amazing things, not only by finding survivors, but also by providing emotional support to the firefighters. “I thought, what if we had a crisis dog that could instantly be someone’s friend?”

The Scottsdale PD embraced Pagliuca’s idea, and Fozzie was adopted from a service dog school in Michigan called Paws With a Cause. “He was on track to be a service dog, but he’s sort of a beauty school dropout,” says Pagliuca, referring to Fozzie’s mild hip dysplasia. Instead, the friendly and slightly enfeebled puppy found his place in crisis counseling, undergoing training with Scottsdale PD’s K9 unit.

Fozzie’s primary job, Pagliuca says, is to normalize an abnormal situation: “We know that trauma isolates people. Your body goes into shock. So, we’ll go to where there’s a dead body. That’s atypical. But having a friendly dog, that’s normal. It helps stabilize people. Something he can do that I can’t is he’ll never say the wrong thing.”

Pagliuca – who shares Fozzie-handling duties with Crisis Intervention Specialist Eric Shinn –  remembers a difficult case involving a 4-year-old sex assault victim who arrived at the Family Advocacy Center in Scottsdale. The traumatic situation was lessened slightly when the little boy met Fozzie in the playroom. “He was giving Fozzie a medical [checkup] with a Fisher Price medical kit. And Fozzie was totally game; he just let him do it. This kiddo, for 40 minutes, wasn’t a kid that was sexually assaulted; he was a normal kid. And I think, as a result, his exam went faster. He was in a better mindset.”

Fozzie has proven himself as a comfort not only to victims and witnesses, but also first responders. “We’ve used Fozzie with officers having a bad day, investigators, medical examiners who’ve had a horrific call,” Pagliuca says. “Just by interacting with him, people feel better. Fozzie can do in five minutes what it takes me three hours to do.”

At Scottsdale PD’s Crime Scene Section – Pagliuca describes it as “the real-life CSIs” – crime scene specialists Kat Palma and David Jacobs don’t have easy jobs by any stretch of the imagination. Palma recalls an especially horrendous case where a man had shot his kids. They spent some 20 hours, in her words, “staring at dead babies.” Fozzie came to help. “You just pet him and hang out and you let everything pass for those few minutes,” Palma says. “It’s nice to have him help keep your mind off this awful, awful thing you’re seeing.”

Pagliuca says Fozzie’s success has spurred interest among other police and fire departments to adopt similar programs. The Phoenix field office of the FBI is looking into their own Fozzie-style crisis-dog adoption. Glendale Fire Department’s Crisis Response Program followed suit and adopted a crisis dog from Paws With a Cause, a yellow lab named Topaz. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has a dog, too. Sam, an Irish Setter/Golden Retriever mix, helps people who have to testify in court to stay calm. Even a police department in Vancouver has reached out to Pagliuca to learn more. Fozzie is in demand on the lecture circuit as well. In August, he and Pagliuca went to San Francisco for a presentation on how dogs can help victims of crime.

Despite Fozzie’s overwhelming popularity, Pagliuca says the success hasn’t gone to his head. His only request has been for more squeaky toys shaped like sea animals. “I’m very fortunate and privileged to get to call him my partner. In almost five years, we still haven’t gotten into one argument,” Pagliuca jokes. “I truly think I have the best career in the whole city. Getting to help people every day, and working with such a noble dog like Fozzie, is just amazing.”