This deputy brings an unusually calming peace to cops, the community and critical incidents

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Those of us in law enforcement know what K-9s do: They track and pursue suspects, locate missing persons, and sniff-out drugs, explosive devices and electronics (computer hard-drives, cameras, etc.), among other responsibilities. We have about 25 such working dogs at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD). But I’d never considered a crisis intervention K-9. I had heard of them, but I wasn’t really sure what a crisis intervention K-9 was, wrongly believing it was a simple therapy dog.

I knew RCSD had recently added “C.J.,” our crisis intervention dog, to the ranks. The first time I met C.J. was when his handler Maj. Allison Farrell, RCSD’s director of wellness and resiliency, was ringing the bell for the Salvation Army in front of a Walmart in northeast Columbia. I saw C.J., patted him on the head and that was it. That was of course in December.

Then about two weeks ago, I was at RCSD headquarters meeting with Chief Maria Yturria in her office when in ambles C.J., quietly and unobtrusively. He came straight up to me and rested his head on my thigh (I’m sitting in a chair). I rubbed his head. After a minute or so he walked away, but he soon returned and again rested his head on my leg as I continued talking with the chief. His presence and touch provided an inexplicably unusual comfort. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time.

I was busy that morning, so I quickly wrapped up my work with Chief Yturria and left the building. But when I got to my car, I kept thinking about my unexpected interaction with C.J. – something akin to the energy and indescribable peace one experiences when holding a newborn baby, but different.

When I got on the road, I phoned Chief Yturria and briefly described what I’d experienced in her office with C.J. His walking from his handler’s office across the hall into the chief’s office was completely unplanned.

Yturria laughed and said, “Well, Tom, that’s precisely what he’s trained to do.”

I had no idea.

A few years ago, the VA diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’d denied any form of PTSD before the VA’s battery of tests and counselors confirmed it. I’ve since accepted the diagnosis and have developed a better understanding of why I am always stressed (other symptoms), uber-vigilant, and shifted into high gear even when there is nothing to be stressed about.

C.J.’s presence made my perpetual symptoms completely dissipate for the few minutes I was with him. And at the time, I was not aware that was his job.

Trained for two years from his birth in 2021, C.J. — a beautiful solid-black Labrador and Golden retriever mix — came to RCSD from Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services (PAALS), which provides various trained service and assistance dogs to agencies, organizations and individuals.

C.J. joined RCSD in October 2023. “We needed a K-9 who unlike the other dogs was strictly trained and conditioned to support our staff and deputies all the time, and to support the community during a critical incident,” said Farrell, who raised the requisite $5,000 to train and bring C.J. into the RCSD family. “He is always present, and he is a calming presence during all mental health sessions with our deputies.”

C.J. has been conditioned to sense the anxiety in others and he responds to “cues” from Farrell, an experienced mental health professional who had to be trained for several weeks to specifically handle C.J.

Military and law-enforcement K-9s like the Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherds and German Shepherds currently working for RCSD are superb animals in their crime-fighting, lifesaving, person-finding roles. But few would have the presence or temperament for the kind of work C.J. does.

Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, or a mix of the two like C.J. mainly become crisis intervention dogs. “These retrievers are best suited for the work they do because they innately like to do the work,” says Melissa Payne, executive director of PAALS. “They enjoy it, and they are perceived by others as naturally friendly dogs.”

The two-year training for a crisis intervention dog is tough and demanding with much of it including interaction with outsiders. “They’ll typically interact with some 1,500 people before training is complete,” says Payne.

About half of the puppies (remember they’re still very young) don’t graduate. The non-grads often become therapy or emotional support dogs.

“Crisis intervention dogs are not only very grounding [to a human recipient of their attention], but they are extremely dependable and responsive,” says Farrell.

As cool and calm as C.J. appears when he’s on the job, when his vest comes off and he’s home (C.J. lives with Farrell), he’s romping across the yard, running, and otherwise playing like any normal two-year-old dog might.

Though generally discouraged from interacting with other K-9s, C.J. does have a platonic girlfriend, Oakley, one of RCSD’s electronics detection K-9s.

“Our K-9s and handlers cover the entire spectrum of necessary services we provide the communities we serve throughout central South Carolina, sometimes beyond,” says Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. “And C.J. brings an equally critical set of skills to the mix. Everyone here loves C.J., and it’s obvious he feels the same.”

What’s in a name? Though a male dog, C.J. is the namesake of “Carol Jean,” the mother of one of the staff members at PAALS.

– Pictured (L-R) RCSD Deputy Chief Maria Yturria, Major Allison Farrell, K-9 C.J., and Sheriff Leon Lott.

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