Changing Hearts and Minds with Police Therapy Dogs

When most people think of dogs in law enforcement, they picture big German Shepards who use their menacing presence to detain suspects and their advanced sense of smell to sniff for drugs and explosives. The Los Gatos Police Department recently added two pups to their unit, but instead of intimidating canines who use their noses to aid the police, they chose two adorable Goldendoodles—JJ and Gary—who use their hearts to help. These dogs joined the department thanks to dispatcher LeAnn Linenko, ‘22, MPA, who wrote her capstone paper while a graduate student at Azusa Pacific University on the ways therapy dogs can support law enforcement officers’ mental health.

“I come from a law enforcement family,” Linenko said. “I’ve seen the things officers have to deal with day in and day out. This line of work can take a serious toll on your mental health.” According to Blue H.E.L.P, nearly 200 police officers die by suicide each year. Linenko said the stigma around mental health in law enforcement is still very present. “So many people in law enforcement think that they have to be so strong. They think sharing about their anxiety and PTSD will lead them to be viewed as weak or that they might lose their job,” Linenko said. That’s not the case at all, but that’s how so many of them feel. I hope this is another outlet for them that will help.”

Therapy dogs, while not commonplace in law enforcement, have grown in popularity in recent years, with more than 50,000 in the U.S. currently. Trained therapy dogs provide psychological and physiological therapy to humans. They can come in a variety of breeds, but must have stable temperaments and friendly personalities. Interacting with therapy dogs releases powerful hormones such as oxytocin and serotonin, as well as regulating cortisol levels. Therapy dogs can also help decrease PTSD symptoms. According to Atlas Assistance Dogs, “veterans who were paired with service dogs showed fewer suicidal behaviors, decreased anger, and fewer had sleep disorders.”

“In our department, the officers will come in pretty frequently to just sit with the dogs. They’ll pet them, throw their toys, and just destress,” Linenko said. “I get a lot of texts asking if the dogs are here today. It’s great to see the officers smile when they’re hanging out with them, to see how happy they make them.” Linenko realized another big benefit of the canines when walking JJ downtown. “When people see police officers in public, they aren’t usually inclined to come up and talk to them,” she said. “The dogs serve as an icebreaker, enabling people to feel more comfortable interacting with police. They’ll come up and ask to pet JJ or Gary and suddenly we’re talking. This opens up conversations with community members who often become willing to bring up topics they otherwise would not.” Linenko said the community response has been overwhelmingly positive. The dogs have visited schools around the area and there are even plans to introduce them at retirement homes and rehabilitation facilities.

Therapy dogs are relatively new to law enforcement. A very small number of police departments across the country have them. Linenko pitched the idea of getting a pair to her department last year, but it took a while to get the funding. The department received donations for the dogs, with the top two donors getting naming rights for the Goldendoodles. The funding also covered three months of training for each dog. “We’re just sticking with the two dogs for now, but we may look at expanding in the future after we see how things go,” Linenko said. “JJ and Gary have been really great for increasing morale in the department and are essential to our community policing mission.”

A Reno native, Linenko graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, with a B.A. in Criminal Justice. After graduation, she moved to Los Gatos for work. While serving as a dispatcher in the police department, Linenko began pursuing her Masters in Public Administration (MPA) by taking online classes at APU. Linenko finished her MPA in May 2022. “I’m also a trainer. I’ve already used a lot of what I used in my public administration classes in that part of my job,” she said. “Mostly I think about how everybody learns in different ways and how people have unique viewpoints on everything. I try to understand where they’re coming from and help them find better ways to learn.”

Linenko said her faith informs every aspect of her life, including her career. “I can’t really discuss my faith at work, but during my APU classes, I learned some tools where I can integrate my faith into my everyday job,” she said. “I lean on my faith for big decisions, to get through the hard calls at work, through the tough times and the stress. I rely on it daily.”

Part of this stress stems from the tension of working in law enforcement in the current sociocultural climate. “I want to break down barriers. I want to show our community that despite tragic events that have hurt law enforcement’s reputation nationally, we care for and want to protect our neighbors,” Linenko said. “I’m really hoping that JJ and Gary will help bring about that change to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community.”

Read more about Linenko’s work with therapy dogs in this article from The Mercury News.