PBSO Therapy Dogs Bring Comfort To People In A Time Of Need

Roy Gonzalez with Charlie, Teresa Grimaldi with Milo and Tania Heatherly with Reggie.

Local residents had the opportunity to meet with members of the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office Therapy Dog Unit on Sunday, Feb. 26 during the “A Day for Autism: Building Bridges with Law Enforcement Picnic” at Village Park in Wellington.

The team includes six deputies, one civilian and eight therapy dogs. PBSO handlers Roy Gonzalez and Teresa Grimaldi were joined by civilian Tania Heatherly at the Wellington event. The trio of handlers were joined by their K9 partners Charlie, Milo and Reggie, respectively.

The other PBSO handlers on the team include William Feaman with K9s Hank and Daya; Brian Cassie with K9 Bear; Charles Bahruth with K9 Lars; and Keith Russell with K9 Jasper. “We’re based off of region,” said Gonzalez, who is based out of Wellington.

Grimaldi is based out of PBSO headquarters, while Bahruth is based out of the western region, Feaman and Heatherly are based out of the south region, and Cassie and Russell are based out of the north region.

The program started almost two years ago with Feaman and one dog. It has since expanded.

Gonzalez joined the program last May with Charlie, who is about a year-and-a-half old now.

Most of the dogs on the team are from Big Dog Ranch Rescue, but Charlie, a husky lab mix, is from the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office.

The Brevard County office also gets their dogs from rescues, and has a Paws & Stripes College program, where the dogs get trained.

“Our training consists of obedience and environmental training,” Grimaldi said. “The dogs themselves, we pick them for their disposition and their temperaments. We can’t teach them that part, so we have to already evaluate them ahead of time and have that part down.”

Once the handlers have bonded with their dogs and confirmed they will be good therapy dogs, they go into obedience and environmental training before getting their certification.

The training, Grimaldi said, is about 300 hours, prior to going to Brevard County to get certified during a week-long national American Kennel Club law enforcement certification certificate program.

“Our training is ongoing daily after that,” she said. “We do weekly unit training, and we do quarterly training with therapy dogs throughout the state that have all been certified.”

Milo, a miniature poodle, specializes in helping elderly and child victims because of his size.

“He’s a smaller dog and can be more of a lap dog and be held,” Grimaldi said. “He will do forensic interviews, possibly for children who have been sexually assaulted. All of our dogs do depositions. He will go to trials where he will sit in the witness box with a victim if they’re testifying against their abuser.”

All of the dogs can provide comfort during depositions and interviews, she added.

“These dogs, they were shelter dogs, and now they’re giving back to the community,” Grimaldi said. “We rescued them, we gave them a home, and now they’re rescuing and helping the community. That’s our job. Our job is to go to victims of crime, people who are experiencing crisis or traumatic events, and that’s what these dogs do.”

The therapy dogs aren’t trained for apprehension or detection, Gonzalez said, but they do get exhausted from the work they’re doing.

“Dogs can take more stress than we can. When a victim or someone who is anxious or struggling is petting them, the dog is getting all of that stress,” Grimaldi said. “When our dogs go home at night, they’re pretty much done.”

The dogs go home with their handlers, go to work with them, and are with them almost 24/7.

“They really do serve a purpose, it’s not a gimmick,” Gonzalez said. “These dogs really provide a service and provide therapy for people who need it, whether it’s the victims, people who are traumatized, or first responders who show up on scene. Everybody gets a benefit from them. It’s a joy to give it to people and the community. Hopefully, the community can come out and get to meet them, and they’ll enjoy them as much as I know everybody else does.”

The therapy dogs visit career days, preschool events, senior events, PBSO community events including Conversations with a Deputy, senior facilities and libraries.

Heatherly, the civilian, and K9 Reggie go to libraries and nursing homes, as well as PBSO events. When kids who struggle with reading read to a dog, they have been shown to improve their reading skills by two levels, she noted.

She and Reggie are often seen at the libraries, where children read to him. Reggie, a goldendoodle, is two-and-a-half years old, and he has been a therapy dog since he was four months old.

“Dogs are my passion, and I love to see how they can change the moment in a person’s life when they have an encounter with them,” Heatherly said. “It is a privilege to work in this agency, where the sheriff is so involved and so pro the program.”

The unit has a variety of dogs of different sizes, as well as dogs that are allergy safe. This variety allows the unit to adapt to the needs of those they’re visiting, whether someone is afraid of large dogs, or has limited mobility and a small dog would be more helpful.

The unit’s purpose, Grimaldi said, is threefold: helping victims or people experiencing crisis, such as those who have had deaths in the family, or after a vehicle accident; community outreach; and internal peer support with PBSO employees, such as the dispatchers who are the first line when victims call in, and the crime scene team, which sees the most horrific calls.

The therapy dog unit makes efforts to go to the crime scene team and the dispatchers as often as possible, because they experience trauma just as much as anyone else, Grimaldi said.

“We’re very proud of the unit and what it has accomplished in a very short amount of time. It’s a need; it’s an unfortunate need. It’s another tool on our belt. It’s not the answer for everything, but it’s a tool that the sheriff’s office has to offer,” Grimaldi said. “We are blessed that we have an amazing sheriff who thinks outside the box and is forward-thinking enough to bring a program like this to the county.”

When it comes time for a K9 to retire, for whatever reason, their handlers have the option to adopt them. This also holds true, Grimaldi said, if the deputy retires.

“I would take him in a heartbeat,” Gonzalez said, as Grimaldi added, “I believe all of us will keep our dogs when they retire.”

To request a visit from the Therapy Dog Unit, call the PBSO’s non-emergency line at (561) 688-3000.