On June 4, 2021, Comfort K-9 Marley and his handler Sgt. Janis Pickell of the Chester County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) became the nation’s first canine team to achieve Police Service Therapy/Comfort K-9 certification through the United States Police Canine Association, Inc. (USPCA). The accreditation incorporates the first national standards and testing of a police comfort dog’s temperament and skills, as well as handler knowledge.
Pickell received an article this past winter, the same week she asked if there was a way to determine if she and Marley were providing the best service possible. The information had come from certified K-9 trainer Sgt. Paul Bryant, Jr., head of the CCSO’s K-9 unit. There was a new, national certification program, and Sgt. Bryant encouraged Janis to apply. She did, and the 18-year veteran of the CCSO and her English Black Labrador partner began a new regimen.
Refining skills of bonding and obedience practiced since they became partners in January 2020, Pickell helped Marley learn to encounter and respond calmly to additional people with diverse life situations and in noisy spaces.
The entire CCSO got into the act, under the expertise of Sgt. Bryant. Six fellow K-9-handler partners from the award-winning CCSO K-9 team and the civil office staff helped Marley socialize with other animals, strangers and bystanders. A deputy in a wheelchair and a civilian staff member using a knee scooter after surgery acclimated Marley to mobility devices. Visits to the CCSO’s squad room taught Marley about different levels of noise and activity. Visits to eating areas gave him practice ignoring food that wasn’t his. He became accustomed to riding an elevator. In each situation, Marley honed skills and acquired fans.
The CCSO quickly became the lead law enforcement agency in the USPCA initiative. Now that the first program is over, Bryant is providing feedback to help them fine tune requirements.
This certification is the first for law enforcement therapy dogs in the United States, according to Melinda Ruopp, National Secretary of the USPCA, the largest governing body of police canines and whose standards are accepted in federal court. “For a while we’ve been seeing the use of therapy K-9s for comfort and support in prisons, courtrooms and interview rooms for victims with positive effects,” said Ruopp. “We felt they needed certification for tasks specific to dogs in law enforcement; tests needed to ensure that uses of dogs are policy driven. There are civilian organizations that provide certifications for other therapy dogs, but law enforcement K-9s perform different tasks in different situations and environments.”
Chester County Sheriff Fredda Maddox lauded the work of the USPCA and the K-9 unit for responding to a need and enhancing opportunities to serve the public. “Chester County has a long, rich history of innovation and facilitating change large and small. Marley—with his partner Sgt. Pickell—continues that legacy in his own special way.”
Bryant said that he is very proud of the work of Pickell, Marley and the whole K-9 team. “We are here to help,” he said. “Providing a comfort dog is another way of responding to someone in crisis.”
“Law enforcement work can be hard, heartbreaking and stressful,” said Pickell. “For me, our certification adds another layer of credibility” that upholds Marley’s, hers and other deputies’ work of connecting with someone who is in distress, especially when they are afraid of a uniformed officer.
Pickell also reported on her canine’s reaction to the event: “Marley is unfazed at the prospects of celebrity status after achieving this first certification. For him, it’s another happy day of work at the office.”