EDITORIAL: Grrrrrrrrrrr

BIGGER ISSUES demand our attention, but they don’t have wet noses. Thousands of voices compete for our attention, but the ones from furry muzzles often are best at claiming our time.

Dogs do a pretty good job at public relations too, even allowing for the occasional very-bad-dog story. Right now there’s a dog tale in the Village of Chatham that has nothing to do with the thoughtless, lawbreaking humans who don’t clean up after their pets as village law requires. It revolves around a question of comfort and how much of it—if any at all—a government should provide.

The comfort in this case takes the form of a comfort dog. It’s hard to say for sure what the dog thinks about it, but evidence suggests that all sorts of people benefit from man (or woman or child)-meets-dog encounters with what are now called “comfort dogs.”

Chatham Police Department Deputy Chief Joe Alessi has a certified comfort dog. It’s not a dog trained to assist in regular police work. Deputy Chief Alessi’s dog is comfortable around humans it hasn’t met before. The dog allows people to pet or scratch or otherwise share interactions. That’s the behavior that has led humans to regard canines in general as our best other-species friend. Deputy Chief Alessi wants to bring his dog to work sometimes as an official member of the Chatham PD.

The idea is to lower the stress levels in the tiny police station for the deputy chief and other part-time police officers and also for crime victims or anyone else who interacts with the police. There are costs involved, and Deputy Chief Alessi offered to sign an agreement promising to pay for all food and veterinary care. Not surprisingly, the dog would also have to be insured. It costs as much to insure the dog as it does to insure a part-time cop. Deputy Chief Alessi says donors have already promised to contribute enough to cover the insurance. Apparently there is no allowance for a comfort dog uniform.

The question of whether the Village Board would agree to make this particular dog a village employee has been discussed at monthly meetings since December. Two board members have checked on similar programs elsewhere, including one in Albany, where the police have two “therapy dogs.” These two dogs are probably the same thing as comfort dogs; their job is simply to be a dog available to people, rather than a service dog trained to take specific actions to help a human. Trying to sort out the dog function naming gets complicated and is beside the point. Nobody questioned the dog’s willingness to accept affection from strangers.

The deputy chief assured the board the dog would not be riding with him on police calls. Precisely how that would work did not come up for discussion this month, but Deputy Chief Alessi has obviously thought about it.

When the matter came to a vote this week, it was 4-to-1 against the dog, who was not present.

The main argument against the dog was that it represented too big a project for Chatham’s small police force. One board member, Jaimee Boehme, a dog owner, was also displeased that the Chatham Police Department (CPD) had been working on the comfort dog proposal before the board knew about it.

Ms. Boehme was right to question whether any department of village government has exceeded its authority. But it was not clear from this month’s Village Board what the CPD had done wrong. From what Deputy Chief Alessi said, no village funds were spent on this proposal. And certainly the department can consider ways to enhance the performance of the police force and of the officers’ interactions with people they’re sworn to serve.

More troubling is the board’s reluctance to permit, at no apparent cost to taxpayers, what may be new best practice in community policing. If the department wanted an armored car, the board would have good reason to nix it. But a comfort dog?

This rationale about being too small a village for good ideas ignores the fact that true innovation most often starts on the smallest scale. Why not try it for a year with no taxpayer funds allocated and with a requirement for regular reports on its effects… or lack thereof?

Chatham’s taxpayers appreciate the board’s frugality. But this vote raised unreasonable fears, thwarting an experiment that might improve the quality of policing and possibly enhance the quality of life in the village. The board should reconsider the proposal and give it a trial.

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