by Lenny O’Keefe, Choose Love Comfort Dog Program Creator
I am a retired Law Enforcement Officer who currently works for the Concord Police Department in the Community Services unit. I am very fortunate to be the Comfort Dog Handler and grateful to work with an incredible partner, Liberty. Liberty is a four year old yellow lab who was sworn into the Concord Police Department three years ago to work as a Police Comfort Dog.
In August of 2021, Liberty and I were attending a kindergarten open house at Abbott Downing Elementary School in Concord NH, a Choose Love school. As Principal Blynn began telling parents about the Choose Love program and the program’s ability to make his school safer, I thought that is what Liberty’s work entails. Liberty is a part of a proactive approach to introduce children to the community policing efforts of the Concord Police Department and help foster a positive relationship with the police department.
Before Principal Blynn was finished speaking, I had already emailed Shannon Desilets, Program Director for the Choose Love Movement in New Hampshire, and asked how we could be involved with Choose Love. Soon after, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Shannon and Scarlett Lewis, the founder of the Choose Love Movement. That day has since changed my life and how Liberty is used in the schools. I knew I had to help create the Choose Love Comfort Dog Program.
After speaking with Scarlett and Shannon, I began taking the Choose Love For Communities course online. As the handler of a comfort dog and someone who has had a dog his entire life, I knew that the unconditional love we receive from our pets is something that fits right in with the pillars of the Choose Love Movement, Courage, Gratitude, Forgiveness, and Compassion-in-Action.
I have been asked several times how I use Liberty to spread the Choose Love message. We are very fortunate to have been integrated into our school system whether it’s for classroom visits, special events at the school, DARE classes, or just stopping by to read a book. Now I have a message that goes along with Liberty’s visit and that message is Choose Love.
Using the Choose Love Formula to help students.
The easiest for me is Compassion in Action. It has been proven through studies that children who read out loud to dogs become better readers. We can all remember a teacher asking us to read out loud in class and the anxiety that we would feel in that moment. Because Liberty just sits, listens and never judges, she is showing compassion. It does not matter how fast or well the child reads, Liberty just sits and listens.
Courage has been relatively easy as well. During one visit, I was informed by a teacher that she had a young student in a wheelchair who was extremely afraid of dogs. Because this student’s classmates spoke so highly of meeting Liberty, it gave this child the courage to meet her. And in a matter of a few minutes, I handed the young lady a tennis ball and she and Liberty began playing fetch.
Forgiveness opens up many conversations with students about their own pets and the fact that no matter what happened previously, their pets will always be waiting for them at the door each day with tails wagging. It opens the ability to explain just what it is to forgive someone, and also what it feels like when someone we care about forgives us.
And lastly, Gratitude. When I place Liberty in front of a group of children and she wags her tail and approaches them for a pet, she is showing how grateful she is for the small interaction she will receive from each child. One of my all time favorite visits was with a young lady who was in an Exceptional Education Classroom. At first she was a little withdrawn but soon laughed and giggled as she rubbed Liberty’s head, and was even a little startled as Liberty tried to give her kisses but she soon kissed Liberty back. As we began to leave the classroom, this little child said “Good-Bye” quite clearly. Liberty and I were walking down the hall when two teachers came out of the classroom with tears in their eyes and explained that this young lady was non-verbal. This was the first time her teachers had heard her speak!
My hope is that everyone will see the benefit of using Choose Love and its components as ways to begin dialogue with students of all ages. The Choose Love Movement is a way to make our schools and society safer. It has opened several conversations between children, their parents, educators, and child therapists, with Liberty and most of all myself, a representative of the Concord Police Department and the Choose Love Movement.