The sound of applause, laughter and puppies barking echoed at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office as Sheriff Tyler Brown swore in two new school therapy puppies, Otis and Bear.
Otis, an 8-week-old black Labrador, will work alongside Deputy Drew Matthews, a school resource officer who works at Byers and Deer Trail schools.
Bear, an 8-week-old chocolate Labrador, is teamed up with Deputy Candace Gray, a school resource officer at Cherry Creek Academy. Starting next school year, the pair will divide their time between all the Cherry Creek Schools in Centennial and unincorporated Arapahoe County.
“This puts us at five therapy dogs that are connected to our school resource officers, which is amazing. And they voluntarily take this on,” Brown said during the April 20 swearing-in ceremony.
The other therapy dogs include Rex and Zeke, who work in Littleton Public Schools, and Riley, who works in Cherry Creek Schools.
“I want to thank Cherry Creek Schools, and Deer Trail and Byers, and Littleton Schools for … their willingness to jump into this program with us and seeing the benefits,” Brown said.
Tom Turrell, the superintendent of the Byers School District 32-J, said he can’t share his support enough.
“Out of both Byers and Deer Trail, we work hand-in-hand in many, many projects, and this opportunity for our kids is over the top,” Turrell said. “It’s fantastic for us and it’s going to be fantastic for our kids and our staff alike.”
Matthews, who has worked with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office for 13 years, spoke of the value Otis will bring to the schools.
“Being out in Byers and Deer Trail, they don’t have all the amenities some schools in town have, and I thought it was a great opportunity to have a dog out there for the kids,” he said.
“Just having the dog, it’s amazing how it just opens up kids. They don’t really think they’re talking to a cop,” he added.
In addition to keeping students safe, he said a school resource officer should be engaged in the school and connecting with students.
“I am there for the community and the school to serve them, and so is Otis,” Matthews said.
While Otis is the first school therapy dog for Byers and Deer Trail, Bear is Cherry Creek Schools’ second therapy dog.
Jason Koenig, the chief information officer for Cherry Creek Schools, said the school district appreciates the partnership with Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.
“To watch the dogs go into schools — whether it’s staff or students that are struggling — it is amazing to see when they walk in, everything calms down,” Koenig said. “They really just help the staff and students.”
Gray wanted to become a K-9 handler because she got to see firsthand the impact it had on the community and schools. Her husband, Arapahoe County Sheriff Deputy John Gray, is the K-9 handler for Rex, the agency’s first-ever therapy dog.
“I knew I had to do it,” she said, highlighting the value of the program. “Not only will the dogs do therapy but eventually, down the road, they’ll be trained in some sort of scent work to provide safety and security to our schools as well.”
Gray, who has worked at the agency for 16 years, is the first woman to be a K-9 handler in the history of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, which she said is exciting and provides a good influence for younger generations.
“I just look forward to working with the community and in a positive way,” she said.
The agency’s therapy dog program originated from deputies who wanted to expand their roles and how they provide service to students, Brown said.
“The world that we live in makes it difficult sometimes for them (students) to go to school. And then, having police officers there brings up different anxieties,” Brown said. “And ways that we can bridge that gap are through therapy dogs.”
The impact the therapy dogs have is immediate and long-lasting, he said.
“I think the biggest thing that our therapy dog program does is they’re trained therapy dogs that deal with mental health issues,” he added. “They lower anxiety inside the school building and around having law enforcement officers present in a school.”
The agency’s overall school resource officer program is designed so that the officers become members of their specific school community, Brown said.
“And it really comes down to trust,” he said. “Trust is what makes communities thrive, and that’s what our goal is — is to make sure that we’ve instilled trust in the community.
“That our deputies are there to deal with everything, whether it’s just a bad day of a student waking up and not wanting to go to school, to making sure that that school building is safe to conduct educational operations everyday.”
He wants the community to know that the sheriff’s office is not only an enforcement arm.
“We provide so much more to our community, whether it be mental health services with our co-responders, whether it be mental health with our therapy dogs, and whether it’s just somebody that you need to talk to,” Brown said.
“We’re here as a community resource, not just an enforcement of laws.”