Heads meant enlisting. Tails meant becoming a cop. With the flip of a coin, UCF graduate Jessie Holton found himself in the Marine Corps.
Inspired by the tragic events of 9/11, the then-Brevard County Sheriff’s dispatcher joined the military two days after the Twin Towers were hit. In 2005, he finished his tour in Iraq and returned to the States. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Holton found solace in his pup Primus and began an initiative to incorporate therapy dogs into PTSD group therapy sessions.
“The retention rate was through the roof; veterans were more willing to participate and come if the dogs were there or if they could bring their own dog,” he said. “That’s what really opened the door for the whole idea of using animal-assisted therapy to build communication and get veterans to talk about their issues so they could work through them.”
Holton started back at the sheriff’s office in January 2006, working in the major crimes unit when he began to notice similarities between the children in his cases and the veterans in the military.
In late 2011, Holton started to put together a project to add therapy-dog interaction to the child abuse investigative process. By 2013, the Qualter Project — named for the late Lt. Mike Qualter of BCSO’s Children’s Advocacy Center — was in full swing.
Agent Cyndi Young, the second dog handler and investigator in BCSO’s Special Victims Unit, has been involved with the program since the beginning.
“What we do with the dogs here is to lessen the effects of the trauma associated with either sexual or physical abuse, domestic violence events or anything that has to do with law enforcement and post trauma,” Young said. “By introducing the dogs into the process, it lessens the trauma these children feel when they’re having to recount these events that nobody wants to talk about.”
The dogs go through behavioral assessment and training, such as sitting and staying, but Holton said a lot of it is the dog.
“The dogs just have that sense of knowing when someone is in need,” he said.
As the Qualter Project expands to assist law-enforcement agencies throughout the United States, more handlers are also being sought through the Paws and Stripes Program, through which shelter dogs are brought to inmates to be taught obedience and training. Once an animal is trained to become a therapy dog, Young said they will be passed on to handlers in various sheriff’s offices throughout the country.
“I just love that it’s going to be sustainable, and when we’re gone, somebody else will pick it up and go with it,” Young said. “You can make as much money as you want, and you can have as much stuff as you want; but really at the end of the day … what’s left behind is what you did for somebody else.”
Rachel Stuart is a News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @RachSage or email her at RachelS@CentralFloridaFuture.com.