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There’s a photo of a 1-year-old miniature husky in Chloe Simpson’s transparent phone case. But contrary to what one might expect, it’s not her dog.
And Simpson is not the only one toting around his image.
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At Mesa Middle School, the black-and-white canine is a celebrity, confidant and friend. In addition to carrying around his photo, students look for him between classes to give him head scratches and belly rubs. In return, he helps them feel safe and happy.
Rocket, a therapy dog from the Castle Rock Police Department, is part of a program that pairs school resource officers with therapy dogs to protect and serve students in the Douglas County School District. In August, Mesa became the second school in the district to have an SRO-therapy dog team.
The program started at Castle View High School in 2021 when the school introduced Buttercup.
According to Buttercup’s partner Scott Gillespie, she was the first SRO therapy dog in Colorado.
In addition to helping students who are upset, Gillespie said Buttercup deescalates situations. He said his presence as a police officer can add stress to scenarios in which a student needs an advocate instead.
“They need somebody who's approachable that they can talk to, that can help them through what they're dealing with. She's that bridge,” he said.
Gillepsie also said Buttercup helps him to learn about social conflicts and stressful situations going on in the school, which is information he can use to keep the students safer.
“When students pet her, they talk with me about all kinds of things. And so it ends up being an intelligence-gathering tool for me where I learn about problems before they happen,” he said.
Both of the CRPD teams graduated from a 40-hour program called Paws & Stripes College at the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, which trains law enforcement therapy dog teams.
SRO Luke Godfrey and Rocket also hold the Canine Good Citizen certification through the American Kennel Club and the Multi Discipline Therapy K-9 certification through United K9s, according to the CRPD.
“The role of the school resource officer is to protect and educate,” said Godfrey. “And Rocket really helps me to improve my mission by being so approachable, by being present.”
As a therapy dog, Rocket helps kids who are struggling with mental health, problems at home or other emotional or mental crises, Godfrey said.
“What makes a dog so amazing is that the dog doesn't have any kind of judgment. The dog doesn't judge your situation; the dog just listens,” he said.
Godfrey said he has seen students who were upset or crying visibly calm down just from sitting with Rocket for a few minutes and petting him.
Mesa Principal Jarod Nicholson said he used to work at Ponderosa High School, where he witnessed the positive impact of a therapy dog that worked with a social worker. Because of this experience, he is excited to have a therapy dog at Mesa.
“When I met with Officer Godfrey, I gave him 100% support,” he said. “It just brings such a positive energy to the to the school and it's incredible to see kids light up.”
According to Simpson, a love for Rocket is something that unites the student body.
“It’s where students can come together on one thing... That’s what we agree on, that’s one thing we can all agree on,” she said. “We all think he’s amazing.”
In Godfrey’s eyes, Rocket’s ability to cheer people up is something we could all learn from.
“He really makes their days just a little bit better,” he said. “And I think, as a community, if we can all strive to make each other's lives a little bit better, we'll all improve as a whole.”
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