The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has added a therapy dog to expand its efforts to better serve the needs of people facing significant mental health and substance abuse issues.
The therapy dog is the newest member of a Behavioral Health Intervention Team (BHIT) the law enforcement agency established last year.
The team’s primary task is to keep tabs on individuals who have been held involuntarily in a mental health treatment facility for up to 72 hours, through a state law known as the Baker Act.
They focus on approximately 500 people who are Baker Act repeats — through a proactive approach that includes frequent visitations, welfare checks, expedited behavioral health resources and criminal justice diversion programs.
Now, K9 Charlie, a 1-year-old pitbull-mix, has joined the team, to aid and comfort those who are struggling.
Charlie came to the local law enforcement agency by way of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office’s Paws and Stripes program.
That program trains dogs from local animal shelters, preparing them to become PTSD dogs, therapy dogs, and child victim advocate dogs.
Charlie was rescued from the streets in October.
The new animal assisted therapy dog program strives to better “build a connection” between law enforcement and the mental health community, said Cpt. Toni Roach, who oversees the 15-member BHIT, which includes a captain, two sergeants and 12 detectives.
Charlie helps “to comfort and ease some anxiety and build that stress relief,” when the sheriff’s office comes knocking on the door for visitations and welfare checks, Roach explained.
“Law enforcement and people with mental illness, there’s that stigma that we’re there to take them into custody or arrest them for a crime,” Roach said.
But, Charlie’s calming presence for someone facing a mental health crisis could break the ice, Roach said. And, that can help to open lines of communications, so responders can get to the root of problems and identify ways to resolve them.
An individual struggling with addiction may be referred to outpatient substance abuse treatment, for instance. Or, someone undergoing financial struggles may be referred to Pasco County Human Services and the county’s homeless coalition.
Roach said the idea is to help bridge the gap for services and shorten the time it takes to receive them.
A therapy dog can help in that process, she said.
Charlie’s handler, Det. Pedro Leos, agrees.
Leos said the therapy dog was needed to “better help me make contact with those people in need, break down those barriers between law enforcement and the community, and open up conversation.”
Leos has been with the sheriff’s office in 2014. He said he joined the BHIT “because there’s a stigma with mental illness and I want to break that cycle.
“I want to be there to help people in need, and give them the resources they need to have a better quality of life in order to continue on with their daily activities,” the detective said.
When approached a few months ago to become a therapy dog handler, Leos, who loves pets, said he “was all for it.”
Leos noted there was an immediate connection between him and Charlie during the eight-week Paws and Stripes training program.
“When I met him, I absolutely loved him,” Leos said. “It was like we clicked. He listened to me. We started doing obedience training, and he was awesome. It was just one of those things where we both bonded very quickly.”
The detective said every time he puts on his uniform — a black polo and green spruce pants — Charlie knows it’s time to go to work “and help people in the community.”
Though still a young canine, Charlie has already settled into his role, Leos said.
The detective described Charlie’s demeanor this way: “He’s awesome with kids, awesome with people, awesome with the community. He loves hugs and he loves kisses. He loves to make people happy, and he knows that’s his main goal, to make people happy. He understands it, and he’s out there doing what he needs to do, to help fulfill this desire to help people in need.”
The sheriff’s office plans to add additional therapy dogs at some point, so that at least one can be available seven days a week, officials say.
Published March 11, 2020