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Therapy dogs help Chicago police relieve overwhelming stress of the job

Sneed: Canine helpers even seem to know which officers need them the most, and respond accordingly

Officer Joshua Crespo pets therapy dog Teddy during a roll call Wednesday at the 18th District police station in the Near North neighborhood,.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A dog walks into the room.

His name is Teddy.

He pauses heading into a roll call of Chicago police officers assigned to the city’s most dangerous areas.

What happens then is remarkable: the quiet pursuit of Chicago police officers in crisis this past year by an elite volunteer corps of therapy dogs trained to calm victims of catastrophes, confrontations, chaos and disaster.

But Teddy, the observant goldendoodle, is not a police dog.

The silky maned pooch is a rescue worker who does not bark or bite. He’s assigned to lower the stress levels, blood pressure, and trauma of police officers assigned to CPD’s Community Safety Patrol in the city’s most violent areas.

Their office is ground level at police roll calls, sitting next to or lying down beside men and women encased in bulletproof vests and heavy gear.

Culled from units all over the city since the 2020 protests and riots following the murder of Black American George Floyd, the Community Safety Patrol is also assigned areas dealing with the massive uptick of shootings, street gang crime and too many children being wounded or killed on Chicago’s South and West sides.

Last July, Chicago police officer Ella French, 29, a member of the Community Safety Patrol, was one of the people who stroked Teddy’s head while sitting on the floor next to him at her police roll call at McCormick Place.

From left: Officers Klaudia Zylinska, Renata Klepacki and Carly Cervantez interact Wednesday with therapy dog Ariel after a roll call at the 18th District police station,
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

It was there Officer French and hundreds of fellow officers saluted one of their own who had died alone, a death unexpected after the end of his 12-hour shift with no time off.

Several weeks later, officer French was also dead.

On Aug. 7, she was shot at point blank range in the head by a gunman while she performed a routine traffic stop in Englewood.

The next day, Teddy would head back to McCormick place to help Officer French’s fellow police officers mourn her death — as well as the catastrophic shooting of her partner, Carlos Yanez.

“I didn’t know officer French, but I recognized her picture and remembered her smile and delight while petting Teddy lying at her side in that audience of grief mourning the police officer’s untimely death,” said retired police Sgt. Cindy Gross, Teddy’s handler. Gross is a 30-year police department veteran who retired in 2001 after years of undercover work dealing with drugs, vice, and prostitution.

Gross has since dedicated her time and her pets to therapy dog work with the Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy group in Morton Grove — and is now in charge of 20 volunteer Rainbow teams working with the Chicago Police Department. The organization is completely funded on donations; it has no salaried employees.

“These police officers go to war every day,” said Gross.

“They have seen it all, are exhausted from 12-hour shifts, no days off, no vacation time, little family time to de-stress — which is very difficult to do if families need child care — and a feeling they are not being supported by politicians or the public,” she said. “They’ve been battered.

“Police officers find it hard to talk about what they are going through, but you’d be amazed at how they lean down into a dog’s fur and talk to them. It’s stunning.”

“I don’t let Teddy determine his direction, but these dogs somehow find who needs them the most,” said Gross, who continues to take Teddy to hospitals, autistic centers, and first responders in need of help. “Our Rainbow organization also partners with the American Red Cross in disasters.”

Officer Carly Cervantez greets therapy dog Teddy on Wednesday as Cindy Gross watches before a roll call at the 18th District police station.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Robert Sobo, director of CPD’S Peer Support counseling program, along with peer manager Bea Staszewski, gave the green light to Rainbow dog therapy support last year.

“If there is a way to recover from stress each day by smiling, touching, becoming calm or being able to grieve while petting a therapy dog, stress reduction can become a habit,” Sobo said.

“We had dogs before who helped after a traumatic incident, but nothing like this ability to tap into the amazing Rainbow organization.

“I used to bring my big, sloppy, wonderful rescue dog, Mason, a mix of lab and mastiff to the office, and he encouraged them to start talking,” he added.

Retired Chicago police detective Roland Paulnitsky works alongside Cindy Gross with his PTSD trained Labrador, Ariel, when they go into districts they consider too dangerous for fellow Rainbow volunteers.

“We are trained in police work and working with the dogs last year in the Austin neighborhood’s 15th police district roll call, we encountered shots leaving the station,” said Gross. “It was pop pop pop to our left. A person shot. A person down. Then two shots at the same time. So very close. It is horrific. And Roland and I can carry guns.

“Therapy dogs absorb all the negative stress and energy, so you have to be careful how long you work them at a time. A little canine therapy help can let a person focus for a bit.”

A dog watch. How comforting.

Sneedlings …

Best wishes to the indomitable Carol Carroll, who is recovering from surgery at Evanston Hospital. Saturday birthdays: James Marsden, 48, Jada Pinkett Smith, 50, and Ben Carson, 70. Sunday birthdays. Jimmy Fallon, 47; Sanaa Lathan, 50, and Trisha Yearwood, 57.