The Dalton Police Department’s newest recruit has only been on the job for two months, but he’s already established himself as a star employee. Wherever he goes, members of the public flock to him, eager to steal just a moment of his attention. His coworkers at the station are smitten with him; no one even seems to mind that he leaves his toys scattered everywhere.

His name is Wendell, and it’s probably worth nothing that he happens to be a dog — a 16-week-old standard poodle, to be more precise — bred, trained and donated by Lee Kohlenberger, co-owner of Berkshire Poodles and Berkshire Dogs Unleashed. Kohlenberger has also gifted puppies to the Pittsfield Police Department, Berkshire Family YMCA (Pittsfield location), Whately Police Department and the Lenox Public School District, and is in the beginning stages of bringing a dog to several other departments and school districts in Berkshire County. Additionally, he is in the process of launching a nonprofit, Berkshire Comfort Dogs, that will aid in his quest to place a specially-trained emotional support dog with every organization that wants one in Berkshire County.

Puppy therapy

Wendell is not a traditional police dog. Rather than tracking down suspects or sniffing out illegal substances, his primary job is to provide a much-needed emotional outlet for members of the police force. “It just changes the whole mood, when he’s here,” Dalton Police Chief Deanna Strout said. “It breaks up the day-to-day when you can pet the dog, you can throw the ball down the hall for him to chase... It’s just changing that work setting to say you know, it’s okay to have a little fun while you’re here.”

All that fun has a serious purpose. First responders — a term encompassing police, firefighters, correctional officers, EMS personnel and dispatchers — statistically suffer far greater rates of mental health conditions than the public they serve. For example, a 2018 report by the Ruderman Family Foundation estimated firefighters and police officers to be up to five times more likely to experience depression and PTSD than the general population.

In his ten years as a firefighter with the city of Pittsfield, Kohlenberger experienced first hand the emotional burden first responders were expected to carry. Fortunately, he also witnessed a shift in the way departments handled these issues. “It wasn’t until Fire Chief [Thomas] Sammons became the permanent chief that the Pittsfield Fire Department even had a standard operating guideline for critical incident stress debriefing,” he said. “The days of ‘suck it up and move on’ are behind us, and everyone is starting to see how important mental health is in our first responders.”

The need for healthy emotional outlets for first responders is what first inspired Kohlenberger to begin training and donating comfort dogs. “I really believe in the importance of critical incident stress debriefing,” he said. “This whole program stems from my need to address that.”

As a member of the Western Mass Critical Incident Stress Management team who wrote her Master’s thesis on the impact of critical incident stress on first responders, Strout is fully aware of the toll police work can take on an officer’s mental health. “One of the things I always say to my officers is that everybody comes in and everybody has a bucket, and everybody’s bucket is going to fill,” she said. “You just need to know when it’s full and how to empty it safely.”

In his role as a comfort dog, Wendell offers a release valve for that pent-up stress. “That was one of my big pushes when we got Wendell. It’s for our community, but it’s also for my officers,” Strout said.

In addition to lifting spirits at the station, Wendell is an extremely effective ambassador for the department. His handler, Officer Tyler Miller, takes Wendell with him to attend community events and on trips to local schools and nursing homes. Even Wendell’s bathroom breaks outside the station become an opportunity for community engagement. “Normally, I might get the occasional wave going in and out of the station,” Miller said. “Now people driving by are actually stopping when we’re out on walks, or coming up to us asking questions about him. It really helps people come up to me and have a dialogue when they might not have ever interacted with me before.”

“It’s such a gift from Lee and we are taking full advantage of it,” Strout said.

Born to serve

The process of producing a comfort dog begins before the puppy is even born. Kohlenberger, who breeds poodles for sale as well as for support work under the name Berkshire Poodles, puts an emphasis on temperament when choosing parents, focusing on dogs that are easy-going and comfortable around people. Standard poodles are ideal dogs for the job, as they are intelligent and easy to train, as well as the only breed of their size that is virtually hypoallergenic — a necessity for a dog that will be working in schools.

Future comfort dogs are chosen using Volhard’s Puppy Aptitude Test, a ten-part behavioral assessment administered when the puppies are less than two months of age. “When the puppies are seven weeks old, we test all of them,” Kohlenberger said. “It’s crazy to think that at seven weeks old, it’s decided who’s fit for what, but it’s an extremely accurate way of doing it.”

Once selected, the puppies begin their training. “The process is really heavy on socialization and getting the dogs used to being in public,” Kohlenberger said. “It’s a bonding time for the dogs and the handlers, but the majority of their training is done at work in that beginning year, going to school every day and being around all these different people and sounds and smells and noises.” The dogs will usually be ready for Therapy Dog certification through the American Kennel Club by age one.

Back to school

Kohlenberger’s initial focus was on getting dogs to first responders, but as his program has expanded, he’s discovered another, equally important use for comfort animals.

“Originally, I saw the need within the fire and police service,” he said. “It wasn’t until we put our first comfort dogs out there, to see who would be interested in having a comfort dog, that I really saw the greatest role is in schools.”

The benefits of therapy dogs in schools are well-documented, but as children struggle with the ongoing strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are more eager than ever to embrace new forms of emotional support for their students.

This month, Kohlenberger’s first pair of school therapy puppies began acclimation work in Lenox, at Morris Elementary School and Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

“It was actually something that Amy Higgins, one of our adjustment counselors, has been talking about for quite a bit,” school Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr. said. So when Kohlenberger came to him with the idea of bringing comfort dogs to Lenox, the interest was already established. “It just kind of came together at the right time,” Gosselin said.

The puppies will work out of the counseling offices as they become comfortable in the school environment. Based on previous experiences with dogs in the building, Gosselin expects the puppies to be a big hit with students.

“To build momentum, I’ve been bringing my own dog to certain events, and had a very positive reaction. And then we had Winston [the Pittsfield Police Department’s therapy dog, also donated by Kohlenberger], come over and spend some time last week with the kids, and the kids were just so excited to have the dog,” Gosselin said. “With our new puppies, it will probably be even more so, because they’re so cute.”

Later this month, Pittsfield’s School Committee is set to vote on Kohlenberger’s offer of a therapy dog for each of the city’s public schools. Kohlenberger Is also in talks with MCLA in North Adams, County Ambulance and Lee Public Schools.

“We’re going to do everything we can in the next year to catch everyone up, and get every school in the county who wants one a comfort dog,” he said.

A community project

Raising and training therapy dogs demands extensive investments of both time and resources. Once the dogs are trained and deployed, they’ll need food, regular grooming and veterinary care — expenses that may be hard on tight institutional budgets.

Kohlenberger has stepped in to meet these needs, as well. His canine care facility, Berkshire Dogs Unleashed in Lenox, will provide free training, boarding and grooming for all donated dogs. Hilltowns Veterinary Clinic, in Washington, has extended an offer of free medical services to all working dogs in the county.

To cover the estimated $600 in annual food costs for each dog, Kohlenberger intends to raise money through his Berkshire Comfort Dogs nonprofit, which is set to be up in the next month or so.

As interest in the comfort dogs continues to spread, Kohlenberger hopes additional vet clinics will step up to help care for the growing number of active animals. He’s also looking for volunteer puppy raisers to help socialize future comfort dogs.

If taking on a boisterous pup isn’t feasible, Kohlenberger pointed out that animal lovers can help contribute to the project by choosing Berkshire Dogs Unleashed for their own dogs’ needs. From the beginning, the business was meant as a means for Kohlenberger and his wife, Kaitlyn, to serve the Berkshire Community. “When we opened Berkshire Dogs Unleashed, it was because the community needed the services we offer,” he said. “For all of this to be successful, people can do their part just by supporting our businesses and making it so that we can continue to give back to the community.”

Kohlenberger is thrilled by the enthusiasm with which the community has embraced comfort dogs. “The concept is really taking off once people hear about it,” he said. “I think it sounds too good to be true that everything is free. I think some people are hesitant. But as more dogs get out there, everyone sees that it’s the real deal.”