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When victims need care and solace, the Salt Lake police rely on Rita the Labrador

SLC police dog Rita
Ciara Hulet
Rita is trained as a service dog and knows over 40 commands.

When a badly bruised woman walked into the Salt Lake City police station, victim advocate Cari Bobo couldn’t communicate with her because the woman only spoke Spanish. But Rita — an extremely calm, black Labrador — didn’t need words.

While they waited for an interpreter, Bobo said the woman “just cried and held Rita.”

Three weeks later, Bobo and the dog were waiting in the hallway for the woman before a protective order hearing. “And all of a sudden, I hear the name ‘Rita,’ and she comes running down. And Rita goes out to meet her,” recalled Bobo.

During the hearing, “Rita jumped right on the bench next to her and just sat there the whole time while she sobbed. And her paw sat on her leg the entire time.”

Police dog Rita with handler Cari Bobo
Ciara Hulet
Rita with her handler, Cari Bobo.

Rita is one of a growing number of dogs in the country that help victims and police officers manage stressful situations. They’re called “facility dogs.” In Utah, the American Fork and Orem police departments each just got a puppy they’re training.

Rita came to the Salt Lake City police fully and highly trained four years ago, and during that time, she’s helped a lot of people.

She goes out on police calls and stays with domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault victims during interviews at the police station. “And the victim can just pet them while they're having to relive everything that they experienced,” said Bobo. And Rita goes to court with victims if they’re nervous about giving testimony or being in the same room as the offender.

Studies show the presence of a dog really does calm and comfort victims, and that helps them to focus and communicate more openly.

Courthouse Dogs Foundation is a nonprofit based in Washington state that helps police stations and other agencies throughout the legal system get a dog like Rita. The number of dogs they’ve tracked across the country has grown from 4 in 2008 to more than 313 so far this year. And that’s probably not all of them.

The dogs on that list are all facility dogs that come to a department trained with service dog certifications. And there’s a wait list for them — anywhere from a few months to a year.

Orem Police are training their puppy themselves and are working toward getting her a psychiatric service dog certification.

Puppy Hoku with handler Aiza Stevens
Ciara Hulet
Aiza Stevens is still working on basic commands with Hoku like sit, stand and recognizing her name.

Her name is Hoku, a 14-week-old fox red Labrador with adorable chocolate brown eyes and a lot of curiosity. She’s paid for through private foundation donations, while the Salt Lake dog is funded by a state grant.

It’s going to be a while before Hoku works with victims, said Aiza Stevens, a victim advocate and Hoku’s handler. But Stevens is looking forward to how Hoku will help in Orem.

“We've been to a lot of suicides, and a lot of times there's young kids involved,” she said. “And I think bringing a calm, even-tempered dog to that situation could help them relax a little bit more.”

Police dog Hoku looking up at a snack
Ciara Hulet
Hoku is very food-driven in training — she loves her snacks and looks up at one here.
Officer Mitchell Whitehead of the Orem Police greets police dog Hoku
Ciara Hulet
Officer Mitchell Whitehead of the Orem Police immediately went to greet Hoku after he got out of his patrol car.

Hoku is already making a difference at the station, Stevens said, by making people happy and heightening morale. Other police departments have seen the same thing. The Reno, Nevada, Police Department has a dog named Winter. She’s a golden Labrador mix that’s been there for a year and a half, and she gets a lot of attention from officers.

Lt. Michael Browett, Winter’s handler, said that when they stand up after petting her, “they just let out this big sigh, just a nice deep breath.”’

Officers see hundreds, if not thousands, of stressful events over the course of their careers, Browett said, “and Winter is able to support you as you work through those emotions in such a non-judgmental way.”

“She doesn't seem to be disinterested in you, no matter how emotional you are,” he explained. “She doesn't seem to be uncomfortable in the face of those emotions.”

And sometimes when he’s driving, “Winter just pokes her head out of her kennel in my car and rests her head on my shoulder.”

Browett has also noticed a difference in how he interacts with the community when Winter is with him. Officers can sometimes be intimidating, he said, but Winter is “very, very approachable.”

Lt. Michael Browett with police dog Winter
Courtesy Lt. Michael Browett
Lt. Michael Browett said that Winter’s impact is “amazingly powerful.” Her presence can change “the whole atmosphere” in a stressful situation.

“People approach her almost automatically,” Browett said. “I don't even know that they see a police officer holding the leash, to be honest.”

When he’s working with victims, sometimes Browett wants to give them some physical comfort. That’s something that would be “awkward for a uniformed law enforcement officer, even a victim advocate.”

“But Winter's able to bridge that gap,” he said. “She's able to have those affectionate interactions that show and demonstrate, you know, caring.”

Rita’s handler, Cari Bobo in Salt Lake, said dogs help in ways that humans just can’t.

“She provides things that you can't even talk about, that you can't put into words. It’s incredible. They’re always willing to come up and give us love.”

Ciara is a native of Utah and KUER's Morning Edition host
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