Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Crime: An FBI victim specialist and her four-legged partner form a unique and remarkable team

helping victims of crime

Helping Victims of Crime. Therapy Dog Program a First for the Bureau
Rachel Pierce is a victim specialist in our Office for Victim Assistance. Her partner is an 8-year-old German Shepherd/Siberian Husky mix, and together they form a unique and remarkable team.

The FBI uses a variety of working dogs, highly capable canines that can sniff out drugs and bombs, bolster security, and alert their handlers when they pick up the scent of blood. But Dolce, with his shimmering yellow coat and steel blue eyes, is the Bureau’s one and only therapy dog.

The job of a victim specialist, or VS, is to ensure that victims receive the rights they are entitled to under federal law and the assistance they need to cope with crime. With his lovable personality, Dolce excels at comforting crime victims and their families. The story of how he became a VS—of the K9 variety—is a story in itself.

Pierce, a psychologist who worked for the Department of Defense and law enforcement before joining the Bureau about five years ago, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease whose symptoms can be debilitating when they strike. In 2004, she went to a local shelter looking for a puppy she could train to be a service dog. That’s where she found Dolce.

“I thought it would be nice to have a dog that did some things around the house for me when my symptoms flared up,” she said. “There are days I can’t move or even lift a sheet.”

After extensive service dog training, Dolce learned how to turn light switches on and off, load laundry in the washing machine, and even retrieve drinks from the refrigerator. “He is a very good service dog,” said Pierce, who is based in our Nashville Resident Agency. “But service dogs are not supposed to interact with the public.”

That was a problem, because Dolce loves people. Pierce soon realized that Dolce’s intelligence and temperament would make him a terrific therapy dog. She knew from her military experience that the Army has a successful therapy dog program, and she set out to introduce a something similar at the FBI.

On her own, Pierce undertook an extensive training regimen with Dolce, and he passed registration exams given by Pet Partners and other organizations. In 2009, after spending many volunteer hours taking Dolce to nursing homes, camps for grieving children, and other places that use therapy dogs, Pierce’s proposal for the K9-Assisted Victim Assistance Program was approved by the FBI and adopted as a pilot program.

Since then, she and Dolce have had a very positive impact, comforting victims and their families in murder cases, kidnappings, and bank robberies, where Dolce’s presence is a calming influence on tellers who minutes before may have had a gun pointed in their faces.

Studies have shown that the presence of an animal in a stressful situation can produce a calming effect, Pierce said. “It can lower blood pressure and make you feel more relaxed.” In the immediate aftermath of a bank robbery, for example, a calm witness can better relay information about the crime to investigators.

“We have worked a lot of cases together,” Pierce said, “helping victims of child pornography and even white-collar crime, where senior citizens lost their life savings to investment scam artists. Dolce has helped a lot of people,” she added. “I am so proud of him for all the lives he has touched in a positive way.”