It is well known that service dogs can be extremely helpful and supportive to people with disabilities. As Acton PD’s Detective Jon Stackhouse and his canine partner Officer Zane are proving, they can also be incredible assets in community policing. DVSN works closely with 13 area police departments, including Acton, to better serve our clients. We were very interested in learning more about Officer Zane and how he works with the public, including domestic violence survivors. Det. Stackhouse has spoken at a DVSN Advocate in-service but we wanted to share his words with the wider audience of our monthly blog. He kindly agreed to an interview. Read on to learn what he had to say about how he came to work with Officer Zane, what they do together, and the impact a service dog has had on individuals and the community.

[Edited for length.]

Zane came to you through the organizations Violently Injured Police Officers Organization (V.I.P.O.) and Puppies Behind Bars (PBB). Can you explain what those organizations do and how you ended up getting a service dog for Acton PD?

A dear friend of mine, Mario Oliveira, was a Somerville detective who was shot in the line of duty in 2010 or 2011. He was shot at point-blank range 6 times and actually died twice but survived the shooting. Bob DeNapoli was a Woburn police officer who was shot in the line of duty, also 6 times and survived that shooting. The two of them got together and formed the nonprofit for Violently Injured Police Officers. We hear about police officers being killed and it’s tragic. You get the big funeral and the federal government gives the surviving spouse and family a lot of money and the state will give you a lot of money. That’s all well and good if you die. But if you are permanently injured in the line of duty, specifically more so violently, you’re forced to retire at 72% of your base salary, which is not a lot of money in some circumstances. Especially if you are a new officer. The two of them formed this organization for peer support, and also to try to change the law here in Massachusetts that if you are permanently injured in the line of duty – police, fire, corrections, group 3 retirement specifically – you should receive 100% of your base salary and be entitled to those raises and so forth just as much as if you were still here or had retired.

Anyway, the two of them asked me to be a part of their organization and to be on their advisory board. I got involved with them and peer support stuff and various trainings. They travel the country and teach a PowerPoint of their shootings, their encounters, and what their stress was, mental health, and all that… which I would highly recommend. It’s very moving and very powerful, very spiritual. At one of their presentations, I don’t remember where it was, the founder of this organization that I got Zane from, Puppies Behind Bars, was in attendance… The organization… [works in] about seven different correctional facilities, I believe, between New York and New Jersey that raise and train service dogs for veterans and first responders [to help with] various illnesses such as PTSD, things like that. So, she came up to Mario after his shooting presentation… gave him her card and said, “Please reach out to me and we’ll talk. I’d love to give you a dog and have it work with you.”

Mario called me on his way home and he said, “Hey, there’s this lady, can you reach out to her? She wants to give us a dog. Just give her a call. It sounds like a great idea.” And we just started having conversations and all of a sudden it became [evident] that the organization didn’t understand that… this was going to be specifically for the nonprofit [V.I.P.O.]. They thought it was going to be for both [V.I.P.O and Acton PD]. And I said, “Jeez, I never even thought about the police department aspect of it. Let me go talk to the chief and whatnot.” My Chief had just come back from an International Chiefs of Police meeting. One of the main topics that year was officer wellness and mental health. And I said, “I know, I understand. Double the amount of police officers in this country have taken their own lives versus [having] been shot in the line of duty. That’s double. That’s a problem. So, you know, this may be something to help with that, but I’m going to learn more about it.” From there, the chief was just really interested in the whole thing. It was a lot of back-and-forth conversations over a long period of time. Basically, they [wanted] the dog to be imbedded in a police department in addition to some of the outreach stuff that I do with V.I.P.O.” So, it kind of morphed and [then the process] took some time.

What was the process like to get Zane and learn how to work with him?

There was an application process and a background process. They wanted to know where I lived. They wanted to speak with my neighbors, letters of recommendation, all this stuff… because I was applying for a dog that’s worth about $50,000. So, they wanted to be sure [the dog was] being used [for] what it was trained for. I was accepted into the program and ended up going to New York for training – July of last year for two weeks. It was in person at a hotel conference center, but it was supposed to be in prison. We were supposed to go to prison and [meet] the inmates who train the dogs, work side by side in a room and train for two weeks on how to use these dogs that they have been raising for two years. Because of COVID restriction it all had to be via Zoom [but] it was one of the most – if not the most – moving, coolest, neatest, most amazing experiences I’ve had being in this department for 18 years now.

There were four of us who were recipients. We were just sitting there in front of the TV screen. We’d break for lunch and break to let the dogs go to the bathroom and stuff like that but by day three we didn’t really want to break off and have lunch by ourselves. We ended up just saying, “Hey, can we just shoot the breeze with these guys? Can we just each lunch together over Zoom? I know it’s weird but the whole thing is weird, right? Let’s just, let’s have lunch together, let’s have some down time.” Because, you know, it’s hours and hours and hours a day of classroom stuff. Let’s just break it down and become just human. It gave a chance for us to joke around with them, and they got a chance to joke around with us. It was a traumatic experience for them, too, right? You got 26 inmates in a classroom at a maximum-security prison teaching four police officers. It really personalized [the experience]. They got to be really open and so did we. You want to talk about rehabilitation of somebody who’s doing 25 to life in prison – this is the epitome of it! It was… the most rewarding experience of my career to be able to see them as human beings – not as prisoners, not as inmates, not as somebody that, you know, has done wrong.

There’s a documentary on Amazon called Prison Dogs that I highly recommend! In that documentary, Gloria, who’s the founder of the organization, said something that has really stuck with me. These inmates have proven they can do wrong, right? They’ve proven that. Give them a chance to prove that they can do something right. That really, really, really stuck with me because – after speaking with somebody that’s gone through it – they did do something right. I’m on the receiving end of the leash of a dog that they worked so hard to train and it shows. It proves itself. And it works. This dog helps so many people every day, every week, every month. The list keeps growing and that’s not a credit to me. That’s a credit to [the inmate trainers] that I’m able to bring Zane into these places, that he is well-behaved and things like that. I hope that helps them sleep at night. I hope that makes them put a smile on their face and say, “Jeez, I know I did something really wrong, but I was able to do something really, really good, too.”

How does Zane help police officers and other first responders?

At the beginning of our shifts, Zane immediately – without me telling him anything – will literally go meet and greet everyone in that room, every single day. He loves the attention and all the officers love the attention, too. They all greet him. If I’m doing office work on the computer, he’s got his own dog bed in there and people will come in and say, “Hey, Zane!” and they’ll take him out in the hallway and just play catch with him. To be honest, people look at that and may roll their eyes at it but just that 2-3 minutes of interaction makes them forget – or pause, really, pause what had just happened previously or what they know they have to deal with or that long report they have to write. It just gives them a break, a pause, to just kind of be able to be a human being. The officer wellness piece of it is awesome.

We’ve recently been accepted to the Massachusetts District 14 Critical Incident Stress Management Team for diffusing debriefings of traumatic and critical incidents that first responders have gone to and dealt with, such as fatal car accidents, fatal fires, fatal electrocutions, suicides, anything that’s a traumatic event. We’ll respond to 14 different communities for their first responders to help them through and guide them in the right direction and get them help if they need it beyond peer support. To help be a part of that solution, which is very fulfilling to me and I know it is for [Zane], too. The mental health aspect of this job and the first responder community is a large part of it and, frankly, I think it’s been overlooked in the past. I think it’s getting better, for sure, but I want to be a part of the solution and make sure it’s continuing in that direction of getting better.

How does Zane help in the community?

We worked in the schools last year a little bit. Hopefully it will be a lot better this year, with more availability getting in there. I’ve worked with at-risk children, with self-harming children. I’ve seen so many children be at their worst, having an episode of some sort, and bringing that dog in and literally shutting it off – on one specific occasion I can remember – like a light switch. I had the same child at Emerson Hospital awaiting to be evaluated and spiked back up in his behavior in a crowded emergency room. I said to the ER doctor, “Doc, I have a service dog in my cruiser and I used it and it worked with this child before. Can I bring him in? I know I don’t need to ask but I just want to be respectful and ask you.” And he said, “Absolutely! I’ve never heard of anything, this is awesome!” And the same thing [happened], I brought the dog in, put the dog up on the gurney, and laid the dog on top of [the child]. It wasn’t a light switch, it was a dimmer switch. It just calmed him right down.

Once we can get back into the post-COVID world of court for court room testimony, for victims, for sexual assault interviews… there’s really no limit with this. It just puts them at ease having that dog there. Literally, it just gives them a pause, even with me. They’ll see an officer in uniform and they’ll be sometimes nervous or scared but they see the dog and that forethought of, “Oh, there’s a police officer here! Oh my gosh!”, it just goes away with the dog. And then it’s the extension of the leash [coming] back up to the arm to my face saying, “Hey, I’m a normal person, I have a really cool dog. How are you doing? Let’s talk about what happened.” And it just leads into whatever needs to be talked about. I’m very fortunate but I know we have started something with service dogs specifically because of public access and things like that. It’s a little different than the comfort and the therapy dogs but it’s the same purpose. We all have the same purpose. We want to help people. Having this dog in a capacity of a service dog becoming a member of our agency in a different world, in a different way, in a non-aggressive police dog type way. It’s a win!

With the climate of the world, the climate that we’re in as far as policing goes, this is certainly a step in the right direction to engage in conversation about what we really do. I’ve always been a part of engaging with the community since I became a police officer but having Zane 100% makes that happen. It’s easier. He makes my job easier. You know, you meet more people. You certainly talk a lot more. People want to know. They look at his vest and want to know, “What’s Puppies Behind Bars?” And I say, “You got Amazon?… Well, go on when you go home tonight and go look up Prison Dogs…” I can’t tell you how many people are like, “Wow! This is crazy!” So, it’s great, you know. It’s definitely a moving experience. It’s been a year but he’s my best friend, he’s my partner, he’s everything. He’s with me 24/7. It’s a lot of work but to see him in a situation to calm somebody down that’s probably having one of the worst parts of their day or month or life, is a total win. It just works.

Some cultures in this community, where they come from, the police are not their friends. We’re here to help [but] they think we’re here to hurt. They may be more scared because they see a dog and say, “Ahh! It’s a police dog, it’s a police dog!” It’s supposed to be scary. It’s not. And then we get into the conversation and it starts their mindset of, wow – this is very different from where I came from or this is very much a different encounter from the last time this happened in another town or city or whatever. And it’s always positive because if it’s not a positive, if it didn’t turn out to be a positive interaction, then I did something wrong.

What types of things can Zane do? What skills does he have?

They were trained to sense seizures. He can turn on the lights. He can pick anything up off the floor I ask him to pick up that a dog can, [like] a key that somebody drops or a bottle or really anything. He can bring it to me. He can bring it to you. He can open refrigerator doors. He can open cabinets. The command is “tug” and as long as he knows what he’s supposed to tug, he can open up all that stuff. He can dial 911 from certain larger button phones that you can pre-program, which is probably one of the coolest things that I use him for in the schools. We try and teach the kids, you know, you dial 911 when there’s an emergency and so forth. Not only can you do it but Zane can do it, too! He can push elevator buttons, pretty much anything that somebody confined to a wheelchair couldn’t do, he could certainly do it for them. I have a few ideas of a few things that I think he’s capable of doing. Like I said, the sky’s the limit, in my opinion. I get asked a lot, you know, “Hey, could you bring Zane here? Would you bring him there? Would you bring him to this situation?” And the answer is yes, as long as the situation is made safe that he can go in, 100%.

You got Zane in the midst of COVID. Has the pandemic changed how Zane is used by the department and/or how he serves in the community?

With COVID, again, up until about two weeks before the training in July, [it was] still questionable whether we were going to do the training or not. It was over Zoom, so we didn’t get the full experience of going into prison. But the commissioner of New York prisons was a great, great guy and absolutely welcomed us back once the restrictions were lifted enough that we could have out-of-state visitors come in. He wants us to come in there and meet with these prisoners. Not [only] specifically David, who raised Zane, but anybody who is a part of the program. I’ve been itching to do that. I want to be able to shake this guy’s hand and give him a hug and say, “Thank you very much for what you did for Zane.”

When I got back it was a really telling time for everybody, you know. It was weird. I was restricted a lot as to where we could go because of possible [virus] transmission. So, it was really an unknown for a while. Again, it was great because it gave Zane and me some more time to be together, go for hikes, go to the park, go swimming, do our own thing and make a really strong bond. Whereas, if we didn’t have the COVID restrictions, I probably would have hit the ground running and we wouldn’t have had that time to bond. It’s definitely gotten a lot better. I spoke with one of the Deputy Superintendents a few weeks ago and said, “Hey, I would love to get the dog in schools this year.” And they’re 100% on board with it. We’re just going to keep hoping and praying that it continues to be [possible] and see how it goes… It was a very confusing and troubling and hard time but in the midst of being alone and not having that interaction with the community, I got to have a strong bond with my new partner. So, it was good.

What are some of the challenges of working with a service dog and specifically Zane?

I was fortunate that this was a fully trained and ready to go dog. The challenge that I really didn’t understand until you’re actually involved in it is the simple fact that Zane’s with me all the time. If I’m going out for the day, to go for a day trip down the Cape or whatever, I need to make sure that I’ve got all of his equipment, all of his food, all the water. It’s like having a baby. It’s the same type of thing. I need to make sure I plan out where I’m going. Service dogs are allowed 99.9% of the places but if I’m going out with people – where am I going to go? Is there room for the dog? If I’m going out to a restaurant, make sure that [there’s room] where we’re going to be seated at the restaurant. Again, it’s a lot of pre-planning and thinking ahead. So, it’s a lot. It’s like having a baby with you essentially 24/7. It’s a lot.

How can Zane help survivors of domestic violence and clients of DVSN?

This is something that I look forward to doing with him now that COVID’s kind of somewhat easing. I haven’t done it with him specifically yet but [he could be useful] in the heat of a domestic violence call – which we go to all too often, unfortunately – once the situation is deemed safe, especially where there’s children involved. Police officers don’t usually just come over to your house when you don’t know them and talk to mom or talk to dad, so it can be traumatic. Having myself bring the dog in to kind of [separate] either the children or specifically that other parent with the children, just [helps to] to kind of ease it a little bit. I’m not here to talk about the incident, necessarily, I’m here to just give you a few minutes to breathe and collect your thoughts and I’m here to listen when you’re ready to talk. Or the other officer here that’s with me is going to investigate what happened but I’m just here for you and your children. And if they’re younger children, they need to be entertained. They’re curious, they want to know what’s going on. It’s not the place for them, you know. You don’t want them to know the details. So, to have Zane kind of steer them away from that, I can explain to them what the dog does, show them some of the commands. We can go outside and play fetch – just to get them out of [the situation]. And I’m coming up with ideas as I talk. We have not had a chance to do that yet specifically with him [with] COVID being one of the concerns about going into homes.

[Zane could also help with] victim witness testimony, things like that. Interviews, post arrest, or high-risk situations where we are going to be meeting with or somehow communicating with high-risk victims on a normal, routine basis. Having Zane there to be a part of that just shows on a whole other level that – wow, they really care! That officer, that department, that organization, that Victim Witness Advocate really is going above and beyond the normal. We’re in it for the long haul. I would love to see Zane up on a witness stand in a court room session if that could be one day, just to be there for that victim. It’s a vision. I would love that.

Anything else you would like to share?

His social media platforms – follow us on Instagram and Facebook! My daughter helps me out with a lot of it. She likes doing that stuff and thinking of different ways to get people to engage. Again, like the Instagram stuff – we created a couple of videos last week but it was very funny, very comical. It puts a smile on your face, right? If you’re having a bad day and all of a sudden you just start going through your social media stuff and you come upon that. “Oh my god, that’s Zane. I met Zane! I know him. I didn’t know he could do that! That’s great, that’s cool.” It just gives that pause and kind of stress relief, so to speak. But I’m open to whatever! I would love for more community events and interaction with the public and the students of the area. That’s a win. We’re here to help. If and when we can do anything more than what we’re already doing, I want to do it.

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