Albany Police Launch Therapy Dog Program

May 30, 2019

The Albany Police Department has introduced its newest recruit: a 15-month-old black lab named “Maxie,” part of its new therapy dog program. 

Curled up next to Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins, “Maxie” sports a bright red collar and equally bright – albeit droopy – eyes. The well-tempered dog is shy and maybe a little tuckered out right now, but next week she and her handler, Officer Kyle Haller, will be working hard in Florida, training her to be a therapy dog – specifically for officers and staff at the Albany Police Department. Chief Hawkins says the idea came from watching the work of therapy dogs in hospitals, schools, and courtrooms.

“And we saw how these therapy dogs are helping folks who are in these environments reduce stress, and reducing blood pressure, and [improving] their cardiovascular health – and just the therapeutic effects that these therapy dogs have," Hawkins explains. "And so we thought, ‘Why not see if this type of innovation can work in a law enforcement environment and in a municipal environment?’”

Chief Eric Hawkins announces the Albany Police Department's new therapy dog program Tuesday.
Credit Jesse King / WAMC

Maxie’s original owner, Jennifer Harmon, donated her to the police department in April. The program is backed by the Fire Foundation and MVP Healthcare, which donated $10,000 to get the initiative off the ground. MVP Healthcare Community Engagement Leader Ellen Sax says the organization was eager to get involved.

“We know that therapy dogs can be a pathway to health, whether it’s a child, an adult, or even a police officer who suffers a traumatic incident," Sax says. "And we will see some wonderful things that Maxie can do to help out in those situations.”

“Those situations” can involve comforting officers who’ve experienced trauma, or simply reducing stress and anxiety in the workplace. Hawkins says the therapy dog program will work much like the department’s canine unit – most of the time Maxie will live with and accompany her handler.

“And when the handler has downtime, the handler can go around the different stations and other work environments that we have and just let the dog interact with some of our employees," Hawkins explains. "But then also get out into the community, and do some of the community pop-ups that we do, and some of the other engagements that we do to help to build some bridges out in our community – because people tend to soften up a little bit when they see a nice, cuddly dog.”

When she’s not with Officer Haller, Maxie will stay with her secondary handler, Officer Jan Mika. Mika, who has his own pets at home, says he’s looking forward to introducing Maxie to his family.

“Her name – she’s actually named after one of my friends that I went to the Police Academy with that passed away. It was just a random thing – you know, I didn’t know the name was going to be associated with him, so that was cool to hear that," Mika notes. "I have two kids that are looking very forward to having another dog in the house, so it’ll be pretty cool.”

To get her ready for the job, Chief Hawkins says the training will teach Maxie how to remain calm in large crowds.

“And then the next step is where they actually learn food tolerance and things like that, and how to not respond if they are petted or pawed or touched in any ways like that," he adds. 

A second dog will be assigned to Officer Joseph Lynch, who is part of the Neighborhood Engagement Unit, at the Florida training. Upon return, both dogs will receive additional training and their therapy dog certifications.