Since the inception of the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office Therapy K9 Unit, Sgt. Ron Garrison, Deputy Mark Birtel and Deputy Dave Partin have become more popular and approachable to students and staff at the schools they visit each day. The Therapy K9
Unit was established in 2021 and predominately works inside Indian River County Schools. Chip is assigned to Vero Beach Elementary; Gracie is at Imagine Schools at South Vero; and Ellie Mae is based at Sebastian River High School but rotates to multiple schools throughout the county.The K9s help the school resource officers build a rapport with students and get them to engage with law enforcement on a whole new level.“All three handlers and their K9 partners are proud to work together to help reduce anxiety, enhance self-esteem and open up communication lines with both students and the public,” Sheriff Flowers said
Their K9 companions are Chip, an 18-month-old black Labrador retriever handled by Deputy Birtel; Ellie Mae, a 3 ½-year-old chocolate lab, handled by Sgt. Garrison; and Gracie, a 5-year-old black lab-mix handled by Deputy Partin. The Sheriff’s Office recently welcomed Chip and Ellie Mae to the program during a presentation conducted at Dogs For Life and attended by Sheriff Eric Flowers, DFL CEO Shelly Ferger, DFL Board member Kathi G. Schumann, Sgt. Garrison and Deputy Birtel.“We are very thankful for the generous donations we have received,” said Sheriff Flowers.“And we especially want to thank Dogs For Life’s Kathi G. Schumann and Shelly Ferger who donated Chip, as well as the necessary equipment and training for both K9s.”
A therapy dog’s job is to bring comfort, joy and unconditional love to those they come into contact with each day. The K9s also bridge the gap between a student and person of authority, said Sgt. Garrison. “We have kids come up and engage with the dog who typically wouldn’t approach us,” he said.A typical day for a therapy dog is one of interaction with students, staff, teachers, administrators, and the public. During rotating visits to district schools two to three times a month, the dogs visit each classroom, spending five- to10-minutes with the students and teachers.“Chip comes into work with me each morning and he greets the kids in the courtyard of the school, in the administration office and during all lunches,” said Deputy Birtel.
Part of the school resource officer’s job is to respond to calls for service from a teacher, Children & Family Services, the school’s nurse or administrator.“When someone from Children & Family Services comes to the school it’s typically to talk to a child,” said Sgt. Garrison.“The kid often feels better talking to the case worker with the dog in the room. Many times they won’t open up until they see the dog. They become less afraid.”Deputy Birtel said he has started responding to medical calls in the schools, bringing Chip to the nurse’s office. Chip’s presence often helps the child relax by taking the focus off their injury. “Chip can’t fix what’s hurting them, but he can give comfort.”
The therapy dogs also help during times of grief. A couple weeks ago when a kindergarten teacher died suddenly, the dogs were there to help the students and staff deal with their sadness, said Deputy Birtel. The effect these dogs have on students leaves a lasting impression on their handlers. “Especially when we go into a classroom of students with disabilities,” said Sgt. Garrison.“I’ve seen kids who don’t speak at all engage with these dogs.”There’s a risk-reward dynamic at work. Deputy Birtel will reward a student by allowing them to take Chip’s leash and walk him to class. “Many kids who at first were afraid are now my biggest Chip fans,” said Deputy Birtel.
Ferger founded Dogs For Life in2001 to improve the quality of life for people and dogs through the training of service and therapy dogs and operating an off-leash dog park. DFL is an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International, a worldwide coalition of non-profit programs that train and place AssistanceDogs.“Dogs For Life is proud to partner with the Sheriff’s Office with the placement of Chip, who is perfect asa comfort dog for the school resource program,” said Ferger. “Our goal is to have a dog in every elementary school inIndian River County. “We owe a big thank you to Kathi G.Schumann for sponsoring this program,” said Ferger. The sheriff’s K9 handlers spoke highly of the training they received from Dogs For Life. Working with Ferger, who is director of training, and trainer Marcia Adache, Sergeant Garrison and Deputy Birtel earned American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen and DFL Facility Dog Certification.
To contribute to this program, please visit the website at dogsforlifevb.org