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During crisis, K-9s trained in prisons offer help to citizens – and healing to CT police officers

Officer Alysha Pirog and K-9 Frankie pose for a portrait outside the Bristol Police Department. Frankie joined the force in February after being trained for two years by an incarcerated “‘puppy raiser”’ at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, as part of the Puppies Behind Bars program.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
Officer Alysha Pirog and K-9 Frankie pose for a portrait outside the Bristol Police Department. Frankie joined the force in February after being trained for two years by an incarcerated “‘puppy raiser”’ at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, as part of the Puppies Behind Bars program.

K-9 Frankie is the newest recruit at the Bristol Police Department, but she’s no ordinary police canine.

She’s part of a new trend in law enforcement across Connecticut: K-9s serving as support dogs. Instead of sniffing out drugs or tracking down suspects, Frankie’s role focuses on community engagement and supporting victims. She’s also helping with officer wellness by supporting the police officers themselves.

“She’s not just serving me,” said Officer Alysha Pirog, Frankie’s handler. “She’s here for all the officers. … Departments are starting to see that mental health is important.”

In policing, a profession known for its tough guy attitude, officer mental health has long been overlooked. But that’s starting to change, according to Bristol police chief Brian Gould.

“Thirty years ago, there wasn’t a lot of talk about officer wellness,” he said. “It was more you had to harden yourself and not show your emotions, which we all know doesn’t work.”

Police officers respond to tragedies every day, and they start to carry those traumas with them, Gould said. Without support, that can potentially lead to alcoholism, divorce and suicide.

“And if you think about it,” Gould says, “how can you go out and serve the community if you’re not well yourself?”

Gould decided that one way he could support and serve his officers was to have Frankie join his force.

Frankie was trained by the non-profit Puppies Behind Bars, which works with prisons in New York and New Jersey to train support dogs for war veterans, first responders and police departments. From eight weeks old, each puppy lives with their incarcerated “puppy raiser” for two years while learning more than 80 specialized commands.

K-9 Frankie watches through the windscreen as Officer Alysha Pirog responds to a medical call. Pirog believes that every police department should have a dog like Frankie. “Bristol’s had murders, deaths of children, the worst of the worst,” Pirog said. “But when you’re having a bad day, you have this beautiful animal that you can confide in, who doesn’t talk back or judge you.” She said that part of being a police officer is that you’re expected to be tough and not show your emotions, but Frankie doesn’t care if you cry.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
K-9 Frankie watches through the windscreen as Officer Alysha Pirog responds to a medical call. Pirog believes that every police department should have a dog like Frankie. “Bristol’s had murders, deaths of children, the worst of the worst,” Pirog said. “But when you’re having a bad day, you have this beautiful animal that you can confide in, who doesn’t talk back or judge you.” She said that part of being a police officer is that you’re expected to be tough and not show your emotions, but Frankie doesn’t care if you cry.

Gloria Gilbert Stogafounded the program 25 years agoafter witnessing a similar program in Florida.

“Dogs have the ability to open our hearts,” she said.

Gilbert Molina, a former puppy raiser who’s now an instructor, raised three puppies during his time at a correctional facility. He felt proud as each puppy graduated, like a parent watching their child go to college.

“It gives you a sense of value, of worth, of responsibility,” he said. “You have an opportunity for a second shot at life.”

There are 15 Puppies Behind Bars dogs working with police departments across Connecticut, more than any other state, the agency says.

Last year, Gould, the Bristol police chief, saw the power of these support dogs first-hand when tragedy struck his force. On Oct. 12, Sgt. Alex Hamzy and Lt. Dustin DeMonte were attacked and killed in an ambush as they responded to a 911 call.

Their deaths sent shockwaves throughout the state, and especially among Bristol police colleagues and families.

As soon as they heard the news, 10 Puppies Behind Bars dogs working in other police departments, and their handlers, rushed to Bristol to offer support and comfort.

Sgt. Cynthia Torres and K-9 Jules were two of the first on the scene. Torres said there were no words that humans could say to take away the pain and grief, but that Jules instinctively knew what to do – and who needed him most.

Jules walked around a circle of officers. They were experiencing the most grief that Torres said she’s ever seen.

“Jules, he knew what to do,” Torres said. “And to see the big SWAT guys that had responded just crying into his head. They don’t have to say a word with the dog. They don’t have to.

“That’s when I knew it was the real deal with these dogs; this is the thing that works.”

Over at Waterford Police Station, K-9 Hodges — another Puppies Behind Bars dog — takes a nap after a hard day’s work out in the community with his partner Officer Eric Fredricks. Hodges has been at Waterford for one year and already made a big impact. “These dogs really build bridges with the community,” Fredricks said. While in the past, people might not have felt comfortable approaching him, “now everyone approaches me because I have a cute, lovable dog.”
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
Over at Waterford Police Station, K-9 Hodges — another Puppies Behind Bars dog — takes a nap after a hard day’s work out in the community with his partner Officer Eric Fredricks. Hodges has been at Waterford for one year and already made a big impact. “These dogs really build bridges with the community,” Fredricks said. While in the past, people might not have felt comfortable approaching him, “now everyone approaches me because I have a cute, lovable dog.”

In addition to providing comfort and support to police officers or citizens in distress, the dogs play a vital role in community engagement. Each dog has their own social media account with an avid local following — K-9 Indy of Naugatuck Police has more than over 22,000 Instagram followers. They visit schools, attend sporting events and support community clean- up days, taking on a celebrity status in their towns.

In Bristol, Pirog has found people cross the street specifically to say hi to her and Frankie.

“Sometimes, when people see us, they just see the uniform,” Pirog said. “But when they see Frankie, they also see the person and not just a badge.”

Gould believes the power of these support dogs comes from the joy and unconditional love that they bring. Whether it’s an officer feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders, or a survivor facing their trauma, Frankie can help bring joy during difficult moments.

“She comes up to you and her tail’s wagging and all excited and happy, and now you’re petting the dog, and you feel the love and the caring,” he says.

That moment of joy, he said, can make all the difference.


K-9 Hodges and Officer Eric Fredricks pose for a photo at Hodges’ birthday party, which the local library had thrown in his honor. Hodges often visits the library, where children who need encouragement with their reading have the opportunity to read to him.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
K-9 Hodges and Officer Eric Fredricks pose for a photo at Hodges’ birthday party, which the local library had thrown in his honor. Hodges often visits the library, where children who need encouragement with their reading have the opportunity to read to him.
K-9 Chase is all dressed up for Hodges’ birthday party. Chase is also a Puppies Behind Dog and works with Officer Heather McClelland in the Groton Police Department. McClelland was the first officer in Connecticut to receive a dog from the Puppies Behind Dog program
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
K-9 Chase is all dressed up for Hodges’ birthday party. Chase is also a Puppies Behind Bars dog and works with Officer Heather McClelland in the Groton Police Department. McClelland was the first officer in Connecticut to receive a dog from the Puppies Behind Bars program.
Officer Alysha Pirog and K-9 Frankie stop to admire a giant fish tank at the Mystic Aquarium’s Member Appreciation Night. They are here to meet and greet community members – and enjoy some time with the fish, too.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
Officer Alysha Pirog and K-9 Frankie stop to admire a giant fish tank at the Mystic Aquarium’s Member Appreciation Night. They are here to meet and greet community members – and enjoy some time with the fish, too.
K-9 Officers Hodges and Jules meet Frankie for the first time at Mystic Aquarium. While they work for different police departments, the dogs and their handlers often work as a team, attending community events or responding together to a crisis .
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
K-9 Officers Hodges and Jules meet Frankie for the first time at Mystic Aquarium. While they work for different police departments, the dogs and their handlers often work as a team, attending community events or responding together to a crisis .
K-9 Hodges enjoys a hike on the morning of his third birthday. Puppies Behind Bars take the health of their dogs seriously and officers are required to exercise the dogs for at least an hour every day.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
K-9 Hodges enjoys a hike on the morning of his third birthday. Puppies Behind Bars take the health of their dogs seriously and officers are required to exercise the dogs for at least an hour every day.
K-9 Hodges practices his “tell me a story” command with Officer Kyle McComic at the Waterford Police Station. As part of their training, dogs from the Puppies Behind Bars program learn specialized commands that help them support both citizens and officers in times of crisis. “Tell me a story” is used to help people talk about a traumatic event: when it’s too hard to tell an officer what happened, a victim can focus on the dog and tell them instead, drawing strength from their calming, loving presence.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
K-9 Hodges practices his “tell me a story” command with Officer Kyle McComic at the Waterford Police Station. As part of their training, dogs from the Puppies Behind Bars program learn specialized commands that help them support both citizens and officers in times of crisis. “Tell me a story” is used to help people talk about a traumatic event: when it’s too hard to tell an officer what happened, a victim can focus on the dog and tell them instead, drawing strength from their calming, loving presence.
Sgt. Cynthia Torres and K-9 Jules greet two women waiting in the entrance of the Bristol police department after visiting with police officers.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
Sgt. Cynthia Torres and K-9 Jules greet two women waiting in the entrance of the Bristol police department after visiting with police officers.
Sgt. Cynthia Torres leads an unusual morning roll call on April 20, 2023. Six months after the attack that killed two members of the Bristol police force, some of the dogs who originally responded to the crisis have returned to check in with the Bristol Police Department.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
Sgt. Cynthia Torres leads an unusual morning roll call on April 20, 2023. Six months after the attack that killed two members of the Bristol police force, some of the dogs who originally responded to the crisis have returned to check in with the Bristol Police Department.
A memorial to Sgt. Alex Hamzy and Lt. Dustin DeMonte is on display at the Bristol Police Department. After they were killed during an ambush last October, police officers from all over the country sent their badges to Bristol as symbols of love and support to honor the fallen officers.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
A memorial to Sgt. Alex Hamzy and Lt. Dustin DeMonte is on display at the Bristol Police Department. After they were killed during an ambush last October, police officers from all over the country sent their badges to Bristol as symbols of love and support to honor the fallen officers.
Officer Alysha Pirog and K-9 Frankie set off on patrol around Bristol, responding to calls where Frankie might be able to help residents in distress.
Matilda Hay
/
for Connecticut Public
Officer Alysha Pirog and K-9 Frankie set off on patrol around Bristol, responding to calls where Frankie might be able to help residents in distress.
Frankie rests in the breakroom at the feet of an officer, ever hopeful that he will drop some crumbs.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
Frankie rests in the breakroom at the feet of an officer, ever hopeful that he will drop some crumbs.

Groton Officer Heather McClelland makes herself coffee while K-9 Chase looks on, hopefully. They are at the Crisis Intervention Training Awards, hosted by the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE), where they will be receiving an award for their service responding to the attack on Bristol police officers last October.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
Groton Officer Heather McClelland makes herself coffee while K-9 Chase looks on, hopefully. They are at the Crisis Intervention Training Awards, hosted by the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE), where they will be receiving an award for their service responding to the attack on Bristol police officers last October.
Along with Officer Heather McClelland and K-9 Chase, five other officers and their K9 partners stand to receive their Peer Support Award at the Crisis Intervention Team Awards. They worked as a team after the attack on Bristol police officers, coordinating shifts to ensure some dogs were always present at the Bristol Police Department to comfort grieving officers and the families of the fallen. From left to right: Officer Heather McClelland with K-9 Chase from Groton Police; Sgt. Danielle Durette with K-9 Indy from Naugatuck Police; Officer Anthony Gaudino with K-9 Kady from Hartford Police; Sgt. Cynthia Torres with K-9 Jules from Southern Connecticut State University Police; Officer Eric Fredricks with K-9 Hodges from Waterford Police; and Officer Jay Bodell with K-9 Bear from Middletown Police.
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
Along with Officer Heather McClelland and K-9 Chase, five other officers and their K9 partners stand to receive their Peer Support Award at the Crisis Intervention Team Awards. They worked as a team after the attack on Bristol police officers, coordinating shifts to ensure some dogs were always present at the Bristol Police Department to comfort grieving officers and the families of the fallen. From left to right: Officer Heather McClelland with K-9 Chase from Groton Police; Sgt. Danielle Durette with K-9 Indy from Naugatuck Police; Officer Anthony Gaudino with K-9 Kady from Hartford Police; Sgt. Cynthia Torres with K-9 Jules from Southern Connecticut State University Police; Officer Eric Fredericks with K-9 Hodges from Waterford Police; and Officer Jay Bodell with K-9 Bear from Middletown Police.
K-9 Jules checks in with an officer at the Bristol Police Department. Sgt. Cynthia Torres, his handler, says Jules has a sixth sense for when people are going through something. “It’s like he’ll go and look for someone who needs him,” she said. “At first I thought he was just looking for food, but it’s not,. He looks for people.”
Matilda Hay
/
For Connecticut Public
K-9 Jules checks in with an officer at the Bristol Police Department. Sgt. Cynthia Torres, his handler, says Jules has a sixth sense for when people are going through something. “It’s like he’ll go and look for someone who needs him,” she said. “At first I thought he was just looking for food, but it’s not,. He looks for people.”

Correction: The last name of a Waterford police officer was incorrectly spelled in an earlier version of this story. It is Eric Fredricks, not Fredericks.

Matilda Hay

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