The San Marcos Police Department has two new little helpers, ready and eager to support any person’s mental health by providing attention and comfort.
Sophie, a rescued Shiba Inu/American Eskimo mix, and Rindr, a Belgian Malinois, come when called to the scene of a mental health crisis.
Their sweet demeanors and unconditional love have a therapeutic benefit to those who face difficult health challenges. They help those in a low point, from a teenage girl testifying against a sexual abuser to a thirtysomething suffering a psychotic break.
Joyce Bender is Sophie’s handler with the department’s mental health response unit. The unit’s members respond to calls and see how they can help out – whether it’s getting someone to an inpatient hospital, following up with outpatient services, or securing mental health services.
When arriving at a scene, Bender leaves Sophie in the car and first assesses the situation, gets a feel of the person and their approval to bring in Sophie for support. “It’s no judgment with a dog,” Bender said. “It’s natural to actually have the dog there because they naturally bring down the person’s anxiety.”
Donald Lee, a corporal with the mental health unit, is Rindr’s handler. He said the 2-year-old is “a bit more rambunctious” than Sophie. He shines with first responders and veterans who benefit from an especially friendly dog.
Bender and Lee say dogs can break barriers that humans simply can’t. Bender once spent an hour trying to coax an older woman who’d been released from the emergency room but refused to leave. Abandoned by her family, she was experiencing homelessness and had nowhere to go.
Then she brought Sophie into the women’s room to say goodbye. “When she saw Sophie, it was just an automatic connection,” Bender said. “She put Sophie in her lap and was caressing her and petting her, and just like that, she changed her mind and said, ‘OK.’” And so “we got her to the inpatient center instead of her going out on the streets, which was amazing,” Bender said. “I have tons of stories just like that.”