(First published in the November 8, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Therapy canines Theo and Badge are on duty every day with Wausau school officers Jeff Schremp and Nick Stetzer. Their success is inspiring other agencies to consider using therapy dogs of their own.
School Resource Officer Jeff Schremp, with therapy dog Theo (left) and School Resource Officer Nick Stetzer with therapy dog Badge.
Nick Stetzer had hoped that his dog, Badge, would prove a useful companion to help find “sheds” — the antlers male deer drop every year. Time after time in the forest, Badge would come up short. Even though he did well training at home, in the woods Badge just never came back with antlers.
Perhaps Badge knew he had a higher calling.
These days, Badge goes to work with Stetzer, a school resource officer with the Wausau Police Department, as a therapy dog helping his owner in his duties at Wausau East High School. Stetzer says make no mistake about it: The 4-year-old dog is far more popular than he is, with multiple social media accounts (Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram), and crowds of children around him everywhere he goes in school.
Badge is one of two therapy dogs Wausau police use in the high schools. Theo, the therapy dog operated by school resource officer Jeff Schremp, is just as popular at Wausau West.
These animals are very different than standard police dogs. They’re much more approachable, and that’s by design. The dogs help students feel comfortable with the officers and school staff in a way that would be hard to replicate without that furry buffer. Both Schremp and Stetzer can share stories about how the dogs have helped de-escalate and calm otherwise tense situations at the school.
And word of their success is spreading.
On one afternoon last week, Stetzer, Badge, Schremp and Theo were hanging out at the North Central Health Care cafeteria, and much like at school, patients and staff alike flocked to the dogs, petting them, asking questions, all with smiles on their faces.
This wasn’t just a social visit. NCHC staff is exploring the possibility of using a therapy dog of their own on site. In a facility that deals with mental illness, crisis and addiction, the therapeutic effect of these specially trained dogs would be put to good use. Particularly taking note and conducting research on the topic is the agency’s Lakeside Recovery Manager Daniel Shine, who is interested in the possible benefits of therapy dogs for those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. The dogs act as a medium to break down barriers of communication, whether between a therapist and a patient, or a recovery coach and patient.
There aren’t firm statistics on how many therapy dogs currently are “employed” in the U.S., but sources estimate roughly 100,000 service animals. As of 2012, more than 24,000 therapy dogs were registered with Therapy Dogs International. The Therapy Dog Alliance has another 15,000 members. More than 100 therapy dog groups are recognized by the American Kennel Club, according to its website.
Those numbers are likely to grow as health care professionals and law enforcement hear more and more stories about dogs like Badge.
Badge of honor
Badge with his handler, School Resource Office Nick Stetzer, during a visit to North Central Health Care, which is considering the possibility of employing their own therapy dogs in 2019.
Badge’s Facebook page fans are engaged. Every photo of Badge gets dozens of likes. Including scatchboard renderings of him, even pumpkin carvings. Perusing the page, it’s pretty quickly apparent that this flat-coated retriever is adored.
Stetzer’s idea to train Badge as a therapy dog started when he noticed a lot of mental health problems at Wausau East where he is assigned. He sought out the training himself, and when Badge was ready, he got the department’s permission to bring him to school. Badge’s first day on the job, Oct. 18, 2017, went as well as anyone’s first day on the job could possibly go. Badge was immediately the school’s fluffiest celebrity. “The kids just swarmed to him as soon as Badge came in,” Stetzer says. “It was immediately clear the kids loved having him there. We constantly had kids coming to see Badge. There would be 50 kids at lunch around Badge… I’m pretty sure they like the dogs more than us,” Stetzer adds with a laugh.
Schremp echoed the same sentiment about his therapy dog, Theo, who entered service this fall for the 2018-2019 school year. Schremp went to training in Alabama to pick up and train with Theo. Every morning students flock to Theo to say “good morning” to him. “I can’t remember the last time someone said good morning to me,” Schremp says, laughing.
That matters because it makes the officers themselves much more approachable—an important aspect of the job for a school officer who needs the trust of the kids. Stetzer says hardly anyone came to the school resource officer’s office was before Badge.
When the dogs really shine is during a crisis. Stetzer says a situation arose at North Central Health Care in which a woman barricaded herself in a room and wouldn’t come out for staff or police. She was making comments about harming herself, Stetzer says, and had turned off the lights so neither staff nor police could see anything on the security cameras.
Stetzer usually is with Badge all day at Wausau East, but the pair was called in to NCHC to help handle this incident. “As soon as an officer told her Badge was coming, she said she would only talk to me,” Stetzer says. Officers were able to get her out of the room with Badge’s help.
Something similar happened at Wausau West. Schremp says a girl had barricaded herself in the bathroom and refused to come out for staff. She had been in the bathroom for 30 minutes when Schremp showed up with Theo. “I walked in there with the dog; she was out of there within 10 seconds,” Schremp says. “It’s such a positive experience having the dog in high school… I can’t imagine not having one in our school district.”
In fact, the Wausau Police Department might add more therapy dogs to the lineup, including for the middle schools.
Police departments around the country are using therapy dogs in other settings, such as helping victims of sensitive crimes such as sexual assault; some courts use them to help calm and comfort victims.
Badge also serves as an emissary for the police department. In addition to visiting North Central Health Care, he and Stetzer have appeared at a Rotary Club meeting, Bridge Community Clinic, and events such as the Wausau PD’s celebration on the 400 Block. They also promote the department’s K9 calendar, which helps raise money for the K9 officer program.
Badge was even mentioned by state Attorney General Brad Schimel in a Facebook post last month. After last month’s disappearance of Jayme Closs—the 13-year-old girl from Barron County who was missing after police found her parents shot to death in their home—Badge and Theo were on the front lines in the Barron School District to provide some therapy to the community. “An entire state has been racked with Jayme Closs’s disappearance, and the death of her parents. Obviously, this violent event has been deeply upsetting amongst Jayme’s peers and teachers,” Schimel says in the post. “The new DOJ Office of School Safety is working with Wausau Police and Wisconsin Safe & Healthy Schools to deploy trained therapists, school resource officers, and comfort dogs to the local school.”
Of course, not everyone is a fan of dogs. A few students have anxiety about dogs and will usually indicate that by crossing their arms, Stetzer says. That’s a sign for Stetzer and Schremp to keep Badge and Theo clear of the student. And some kids have allergies, but many of them pet Badge anyway, washing their hands later. This is less of a concern for Theo, a hypoallergenic poodle mixed breed.
Call in the dogs
Shine is very optimistic about the possibilities for therapy dogs at the health care center, where their benefit seems obvious. NCHC officials are careful to present the caveat that they are in the exploratory stage at this point, but administration seemed particularly optimistic. And it probably didn’t hurt that as Theo and Badge roamed the halls that day, they brought smiles to everyone’s faces.
“As soon as we started talking about it, the buzz started going around,” Shine says. Some of the counseling staff have already started bringing trained therapy dogs they are acquainted with, Shine says. Organizations such as Basic Dog in Schofield offers therapy dog prep classes; Heide’s Pet Care in Schofield offers training and international therapy dog testing; and Pawsitively Unleashed in Stevens Point also provides training.
Shine sees huge benefits for the medically monitored treatment program he manages. Lakeside Recover recently expanded to 15 beds. The program once had a waiting list of 150 in its early days when there were only six beds; that wait is now under 50, Shine says.
The main reason therapy dogs work, Shine says, is they act like a medium, bridging the gap between a therapist and patient. It’s probably not hard to imagine how a friendly, fluffy dog can put someone at ease, and that comfort makes a dramatic difference in treatment. “Clients receiving services in crisis, inpatient programs, they can be guarded when sharing,” Shine says. “There are many reasons, whether it’s trauma, lack of trust, mental health stigma. The therapy dog can help break down those doors.”
The idea of therapy dogs at NCHC is still being evaluated but Shine says he sees the potential to help de-escalate a crisis situation—for both adults and children—involving mental illness, for someone close to suicide, or to help someone in recovery. NCHC would be looking at 2019 for its first therapy dog, Shine says.
The Wausau School District is very grateful for Theo and Badge and the services they provide, says Angie Lloyd, the district’s Interim Director of Pupil Services. The dogs occasionally help at other schools for certain students, and district leaders would like to see that expanded. “We would love to get dogs into our middle schools,” Lloyd says.