A Knight’s Best Friend

 In Alumni

Dogs and horses share love and loyalty with students, alumni and faculty

Amanda and Coli

Amanda Payne ‘05 always wanted to work with canines. After graduating with a degree in criminal justice, she joined the Maitland Police Department to gain experience in law enforcement. But she was always looking forward to someday partnering with a dog like Coli.

Ssg Amanda Payne shares a moment with Coli, her Military Working Dog.

Payne enlisted in the US Army because they offered her a quicker path to her calling.   While stationed at Fort Carson, CO, in 2012, she met Coli. The beautiful, black-and-tan German shepherd had been trained as a Patrol Explosive Detection Dog, and was not necessarily interested in meeting Payne’s acquaintance.

“When I picked him up, it was bumpy at first,” Payne said. “He would test me when I would walk in his run.” [ed. Note: “test” in this usage means “bite.”] Military working dogs (MWDs) are alpha dogs.”

Another handler had told Payne that “There will be that one dog you will connect with unlike any other dogs you may work with.” For Payne, that dog was Coli.

Payne and Coli certified as a team in August 2012, and were immediately assigned to work with the United States Secret Service at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. “That week in Florida really helped us bond,” Payne said.

Shortly after their first assignment together, Payne and Coli were deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. It was Coli’s third deployment and Payne’s first.

The war claimed the lives of more than 2,300 servicemen in support of operations in Afghanistan. When Payne returned home a year later, she said, “I was a different person.”

Payne and Coli reunited after Coli’s retirement. “I felt safe and calm with him,” Payne said. And though Coli wasn’t officially working anymore, he had assumed the role of Payne’s therapy dog. Their joy together was short-lived.

“Coli retired and had been with me for about nine months,” Payne said, when she received orders to go to South Korea. “This was heartbreaking for me because I could not take Coli.”

Coli was well cared for by Payne’s father and sister, but it didn’t make the year in South Korea any easier. “That year in Korea about nearly killed me,” Payne said. “My best friend was not there and I needed him.”

After that long year, Payne relocated to Augusta, GA, and after she got settled, her father and sister brought Coli up for a joyous reunion. “I felt back to normal,” Payne said.

Coli and the other MWDs do “whatever it takes to keep their handlers (aka Mom or Dad) out of harm’s way and happy,” Payne said. “To be able to adopt an MWD is the greatest feeling in the world – finally, they can live like a normal dog.”

In the year the partners were separated, Coli had begun to deteriorate physically. He was granted retirement because of Lumbrosacral Stenosis (LS), a spinal cord disease that causes pain and weakness in the lower back, hind legs and tail. It is a complicated disease to treat.

Fortunately for Payne and Coli, Fort Gordon has a veterinarian who specializes in the complex treatment of LS, and Coli began to respond to his therapies. His time at the vet’s office was like going to a doggy day care. “He was spoiled by all who work there,” Payne said. “He had that personality and sparkle to him. Everyone he came across loved him.”

Not long after being cleared by his vet at a regular checkup, Coli and Payne had settled into a new routine. When Payne got up to start her day, she turned on the light and saw that her beloved Coli was gasping for air.

“I quickly got dressed and started to pick him up to take him to the Augusta Animal Emergency hospital,” Payne said. She began CPR on Coli, but it was too late. “My whole world was gone in an instant.”

Wanting answers, Payne asked the vet to examine Coli. What she found was that Coli had likely had an undetected tumor that had burst.

“Until his death, I had not realized all the lives Coli had touched, other than mine. He was truly a best friend, partner and protector,” Payne said. “I am grateful for the chance to share Coli’s story to honor and remember everything he did for our country, for me and for everyone who met him.”

Payne is scheduled to deploy in the next few weeks. She recently received a promotion, and is now a Kennel Master. She will supervise six MWDs.

STEP Students Train Puppy Knights

Morgan Bell, who is on track to graduate this spring, grew up with dogs and may have been slightly homesick when she saw an intriguing sign while she was grocery shopping. “‘Learn how you can have a dog on campus,’” Bell recalled.

The offer from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) was almost too good to refuse, Bell said. Get an 8-week old puppy, teach it about 30 simple commands and social skills, and return it after a year or so. Bell, who grew up with dogs at home in Port St. Lucie, knew she could take care of them, but also knew it would be hard to give them back to CCI for their final training before they are placed with their  human partners with disabilities.

Sarah Crabtree, Destiny Murray, Morgan Bell, Kayla McCauley, Jennifer Markowitz, Amanda Davis, Sharmicha Moore;
Dogs L-R: Navi, Lewski, Sehon, Allin, Dino, and Rexel

According to Martha Johnson, public relations and marketing coordinator for Canine Companions for Independence (Southeast Region), UCF and CCI began partnering on the innovative program when President and Martha Hitt became the owners of two dogs that had been “released” from the training program. “Released dogs are dogs that are released from our program who do not meet the high standards necessary to become an assistance dog,” Johnson said. “Because Dr. Hitt was already aware of our program and mission, that is how our connection/conversation began to start the program on campus.”

The puppies that Bell and the other volunteers have are, of course, instantly recognizable on campus because of their training harness, but also because the fluffballs are so gosh-darn cute. It can be tempting, Bell said, to want to pet them. But because the puppies are learning how to adapt to a variety of intoxicating scents and visual and auditory distractions, Bell and the other puppy-raisers would like you to ask for permission before you pet them.

Bell is on her second puppy, Sehon. Her first, Robin, received “graduate” training from CCI as a hearing dog, and was placed with a deaf student last August.

Bell started STEP at UCF (Service-Dog Training and Education Program) after acquiring Robin. This semester, Bell and Sehon are joined by Sarah Crabtree Destiny Murray, Kayla McCauley, Jennifer Markowitz, Amanda Davis and Sharmicha Moore.

Sarah Crabtree said her life “hasn’t been the same” since she picked up Navi II last June. Crabtree and Navi moved into the bottom floor of Building 70 at the Lake Claire Apartments, along with other student puppy raisers living on campus. “Overall, I wouldn’t trade this humbling experience for the world, and knowing that the puppy I’m raising can go on to change the life of someone in need is definitely something I’m looking forward to witnessing.”

Training for Service and Healing

“A dog changes your life,” said Jim Whitworth, an associate professor in the School of Social Work. Whitworth is probably referring to the group of future service dogs that are currently paired with military veterans in his pilot study that is wrapping up this year.

Jim Whitworth and Cowgirl

However, Whitworth could be referring to “Cowgirl,” his own Australian shepherd, who is “definitely not a service dog.” Cowgirl is the successor to Cowboy, and the latest in a long line of family pets for Whitworth.

Whitworth, along with Tracy Wharton of UCF and Diane Scotland-Coogan of St. Leo University, are researching whether veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be helped by training service dogs. “Some of the dogs in the study start out as are the personal pets of the veterans, but by participating in the program they are teaching their dogs to become their own service dog” Whitworth said. Other dogs will become the service dog for the veteran after they complete their training.

“There was one big guy,” Whitworth said. “We told him his personal dog was not appropriate for service training, and he started crying.”

The coordinators of the pilot study allowed the veteran to put his dog through a few training exercises, and eventually he realized that his dog was better suited for emotional support rather than a life of service.

Photo courtesy of K9 Partners for Patriots

“A service dog’s mission is to assist their human companion,” Whitworth said. First and foremost, they “are attuned to their owner. If a veteran is hesitant to go into a building, for example, the guide dog will help them.”

Whitworth retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, and spent many years counseling service personnel. He recalled one warrior who experienced near panic-attacks as he was sitting in a quiet church.

The quiet atmosphere allowed “intrusive thoughts” to enter the young man’s mind, Whitworth said, and his service dog was a calming presence.

There are a growing number of “solid, research-based interventions to help veterans and their families with PTSD,” Whitworth said. However, “A number of our warriors will never participate in these programs because of avoidance.”

Traditional therapies have historically focused on encouraging veterans to talk about the very thing they don’t want to talk about, Whitworth said.

Programs like K9 therapy and equine therapy may help bridge the gap for veterans who eschew more traditional therapies, Whitworth added.

Already, Whitworth and his team are seeing some “beautiful and complex” anecdotal outcomes from the study. Just as the dogs have the purpose to serve, the veterans also have an increased sense of purpose that is served by training the dogs. The veterans are also bonding with the other veterans in their cohort.

The veterans will undergo an extensive post-study assessment, and the results will be compiled and published, with the results of the research hopefully leading to more funding and the establishment of similar programs.

A Horse is More Than a Horse, Of Course

Tracy Wharton, one of Whitworth’s colleagues in the School of Social Work and a co-lead on the pilot study with veterans and service dogs, is also the associate director of research for the McCormick Research Institute in St. Cloud.

In 2016, the Institute partnered with the UCF College of Medicine and Osceola County to open the Osceola Therapeutic Riding Center where “four-legged counselors help heal the mental and physical injuries of combat.”

Picabo the mare, Olivia the dog, and Tracy Wharton

Of the healing bond between PTSD-scarred veterans and dogs or horses, Wharton asked, “Does something work? It is more complicated than ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

Dr. Manette Monroe, UCF College of Medicine, at McCormick Research Institute

Equine- and canine-therapy programs have been around for years, Wharton said, but the process to collect and analyze the data that may prove any program efficacy is still in its infancy. Wharton has years of not only equine data analytics, but she is also an accomplished horsewoman. She and Picabo, her Arabian, have been together for more than 17 years. Picabo is not only her personal horse, but is also a certified therapy horse.

“There are models and theories,” Wharton said, about animal therapies. “Does it have to be a horse? Is it being in the fresh air or talking to other people? Or is it the actual therapy that the client receives while working with the animal?”

Picabo and Tracy have been together for 17 years.

And of course, Wharton added, there is a difference between businesses that offer “therapeutic” services, and clinical therapy. “Therapeutic riding is not therapy,” Wharton clarified. “I think everyone should have the opportunity to engage with a horse, but we have to make sure that trained specialists are on hand to care for both the horse and the client.”

The partnership with the McCormick Research Institute has been named one of the five finalists for the UCF Collective Impact Community Challenge Initiative, and the winner will be announced after the team presentations in May.

Biting and Bombs: The Life of a K9 and His Partner

It can be fun, said Christopher Holt ’07 ’10, to wear a bite sleeve and get taken down by a charging German shepherd or Belgian Malinois, two of the popular canine breeds used by law enforcement. Holt, a UCF Police Department officer and his K9 partner, Jogy, train periodically with other K9 teams. The human officers don sleeves or the bite suits, and take turns letting their colleagues’ partners chase them down from a distance of 100 feet or so.

Ofc Chris Holt and Jogy

Dogs like Jogy (who is a German shepherd and Malinois cross) can run at a top speed of up to 30 miles an hour. Usain Bolt, a retired Jamaican sprinter and eight-time Olympic gold medalist, has been clocked at speeds up to 28 miles an hour. (We are not sure how fast Officer Holt can run.)

“I love animals all around, especially dogs,” said Holt, who grew up in Lakeland. The first time can be scary, he acknowledged. And because the dog is conditioned to follow the path of least resistance, it is important to present to the charging dog the body part that you actually want bitten.

“It’s a good workout,” Holt laughed, who added that he usually gets bruised from the training, despite the protective gear. Dogs like Jogy are also trained to not just clamp down, but to also tug and bite, much as their ancestors did while chasing prey. Or, perhaps, like present-day dogs do when proffered a meaty bone, to get every last morsel.

The bite sleeve is part of Holt and Jogy’s ongoing training to keep the partners sharp, agile and focused on finding the bad guy. Jogy is not mad when he is deployed to a bad guy or to the bad guy stand-ins, like Holt’s colleagues. He is simply very reward-driven, Holt said, and knows that if he “gets the bad guy,” he will get to play with his red-ball-and-rope toy.

“We’re looking for the dog that wants to lead the pack,” Holt said. “We want him to have a drive for something.”

Dogs who are “toy driven” rather than “food driven” are generally preferred for police work, Holt said. “We don’t want the dog to have a full stomach when he’s chasing after a bad guy.”

Holt also uses toys when Jogy does his other job of locating bombs. The partners have not found an actual bomb during their career, but they train with actual explosives.  “He doesn’t know that it’s a bomb and it could go boom. He know that if he finds that smell, he gets to play.” Sometimes, Holt hides an explosive for Jogy to find, just to “keep it fun for him.”

Jogy keeps those scents in his olfactory memory, which is located in his brain’s limbic system. Humans have the same type of system in their brains, which allows us to recall, for example, the smell of a freshly baked apple pie.

Holt and Jogy’s training was put into use in the early hours following the Pulse nightclub mass shooting on June 12, 2016. A video clip shows Holt arriving on scene, and Jogy’s exuberant barks can be heard in the background.

Not much was known at that point about the motive of the shooter, or whether it was part of a coordinated attack, so Holt and Jogy proceeded to “clear” the area, signaling that they did not detect any of the explosive scents in Jogy’s memory. The partners swept much of Orange Avenue, including the police command and staging areas, emergency triage area, fire department and other nightclubs near Pulse.

Even though Holt and Jogy usually train in areas that are generally empty, the area around Pulse and Downtown Orlando was teaming with many sights and sounds that could have spooked a lesser dog. But Holt said that he and Jogy live together and are so in sync that Jogy takes his cues from him, and is able to blot out any other distractions. Jogy knows the difference between working and playing, Holt said.

When Jogy is “off duty,” he hangs out with Holt and get belly rubs, extra treats and schmackos. But he is always protective of Holt: sometimes, Holt has friends over for game night. Occasionally, things can get a little boisterous, and it might not always be apparent to Jogy’s watchful gaze that Holt is not actually in danger. Jogy is quick to reassure Holt’s friends that he’s got Holt’s “6,” a term highlighting the loyalty and cooperation found in military and law enforcement culture.

Paisley = Puppy Love

Paisley and Det. Matt Scott on the job.

After earning an AA degree from Seminole State College, Matthew Scott ’07 ’11 said he wanted to get into Digital Arts at UCF. His parents suggested that he focus his baccalaureate studies on something a little more suitable for his talents.

While studying criminal justice and then, working as a Community Service Officer and Patrol Officer for UCF PD, Scott began to realize that he “had the power to make a difference in people’s lives.”

As he moved from Patrol Officer to Detective, the focus of Scott’s work shifted to investigating sexual battery and aggravated assault cases. He also became interested in the work the K9 Officers were doing, and wanted to be a part of that team.

In 2014, Scott became a K9 Officer, and was partnered with Buster, a large, powerful German shepherd from Slovakia. He and Buster were just starting to have some success at finding narcotics, but then the unthinkable happened.

“All of a sudden, Buster started to overheat,” Scott said. “…and during training, he wasn’t joyfully biting the bite sleeve, he was merely nipping at it.”

Worse, Buster’s appearance had changed almost overnight:  The muscles in his face had atrophied so badly that his eyes shrunk back into their sockets, giving him the appearance of having no eyes.

“I was terrified. Horror-stricken,” Scott recalled. Even though the duo had been partners for a short time, Scott was very concerned. “Please let everything be OK with Buster.”

The veterinarian was perplexed. After extensive testing, Buster was diagnosed with masticatory muscle myositis (MMM), an immune system disorder in which the dog’s chewing muscles become inflamed and painful. The dog cannot eat, chew or pick up his toys. The vet had never seen such a bad case of MMM, Scott said. Buster also had Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ) and it was slowly changing the skeletal structure of his jaw. Buster could be treated and live out his days in comfort, but he would never be a working dog again.

After Buster was adopted by a nice family, Scott had the opportunity to be partnered with Justice, a sable German shepherd with orange eyes. “Buster prepared me for Justice,” Scott said.

They were completely different – Buster was “cool,” and Justice was full of energy. Justice continued the great work that Buster had started, and one of the partners’ first big busts happened when they responded to a call about a fight in progress. What was thought to be just a small baggy of cocaine turned out to be so much more. “We found a huge amount of drugs,” Scott said.

Scott said he and Justice started getting calls from neighboring agencies who recognized the duo’s value.

But then, Scott said, “I started observing welts on Justice’s body. He had blisters on his hind legs. We thought it was an allergic reaction at first.”

A few nights later, Scott woke up and noticed “a lot of blood” on the floor at his home. “Justice was bleeding out,” Scott said.

Scott quickly patched him up with a pressure bandage from the emergency medical kit that all UCF PD K9 Officers have, and rushed him to the vet. Justice was in bad shape. “He had cuts and lesions all over his body, and he was bleeding from his nose,” Scott said. Justice was in the animal hospital for more than a month, before he was finally diagnosed with a particularly virulent strain of MRSA – a staph infection that had likely been dormant, as well as other ailments.

When Scott visited Justice at the hospital following his extensive surgery, “He army-crawled across the floor to come see me. He is completely loyal and he loves me,” Scott said. And though Justice is also officially retired, Scott decided to keep him and incur all of his future costs. “He is 100 percent back,” Scott added, and spends quality time with Stitch, his “sister,” as well as Paisley, the newest member of Scott’s family.

Paisley, Justice and Stitch occupy some real estate in Det. Matt Scott’s home.

Paisley is UCF PD’s new therapy dog. After Buster and Justice, Scott went back to being a Detective, and got an all-clear to be a therapy dog handler. The walker-coonhound mix was picked up off the streets and trained in the Brevard County jail system by female inmates.

The program, called “Paws & Stripes,” was started by Jessie Holton, a UCF alumnus who developed the curriculum to save shelter dogs and train them to be service and therapy dogs for children and adults with special needs, and to serve veterans and first responders.

“Paisley is the hardest dog I’ve ever trained,” Scott said. And definitely not because she is an “alpha” dog who wants to be the leader of the pack. Paisley’s job, Scott said, is to “let people love on her.”

She has impressive credentials – including a certification from the National Alliance of Therapy Dogs – and Scott said that UCF PD is one of the first college law enforcement agencies across the country to have incorporated the use of therapy dogs into their program. Word of Paisley’s work is becoming known throughout the country, Scott said.

Scott brings Paisley into the “soft room”, a traditional interview room at UCF PD that was transformed into a soothing, homey space (thanks to generous donations from community partners). The goal of the room is to better serve victims of crimes such as sexual assault and stalking by having an environment that makes them feel safe sharing their stories. Once in the room, Paisley interacts with the victim or witness, and the magic unfolds! Scott introduces himself and Paisley, and gives the witness the chance to give Paisley a snack, or make her do a trick.

“For a moment,” Scott said, “We give that victim happiness. We establish rapport, and then – a little more disclosure” that Scott will use to help catch the bad guy. “We care about getting them that justice.”

Combat Marine Creates Innovative Therapy Dog Program

Primus is enjoying his retirement with Charli Holton, daughter of alumnus Jessie Holton.

Jessie Holton ’10 ’12 ‘15

After 9/11, a coin flip determined Jessie Holton’s career path. He was either going to follow the family tradition and become a police officer, or he would enlist in the United States Marine Corps. The quarter landed on heads.

After three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Holton came home. He was eating lunch with another Marine at a VA clinic in Brevard County when a visitor caught his attention.

It was a recruiter for the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, who recognized the value and valor of the returning soldiers and Marines, and invited them to go to the law enforcement academy and consider joining his team.  Holton, who still had dreams of becoming a sworn officer, took that invitation and ran with it.

Because of his battlefield experience, Holton would sometimes respond on scene when there was a veteran in crisis. Who better to understand the difficulties a veteran was facing than another veteran?

At the time, Holton said, traditional therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder was centered on pharmaceuticals. He noticed a growing trend with veterans at the VA clinic – “They’d show up for therapy and they’d bring their dogs.”

Holton, who was enrolled at UCF and was working at BCSO, began researching the link between service animals and veterans. What he found, was that having a service animal led to “increased therapy and reduced anxiety for the veteran. The person was in a better mood, thanks to their animal, and therefore communicated better with the therapist.”

As a deputy with Brevard County assigned to the violent crimes unit, Holton recalled an experience that left him shaken, but also served to inform the rest of his career. He arrived on scene where a 3-year-old child had witnessed a homicide. The look on her face was the same look that Holton knew from his friends at the VA clinic who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I remember that flash moment when I realized that if we had had a therapy animal on scene, we would be more successful,” Holton said. He knew he could do better for the children and victims who had faced traumatic events.

Christy, Charli and Jessie Holton

Holton had been assigned a therapy dog named Primus to help manage his night terrors, a symptom of his PTSD. Primus is a dream of a dog – part Beagle, part Pug – and he was attuned to Holton’s behaviors. As Holton slept, Primus was alert for any changes in his rate of breathing. An increase in breath rate could indicate that a night terror was imminent. Not only are night terrors psychologically destructive, Holton said, but they also cause a large amount of adrenaline to be “dumped” into the body, potentially damaging the cardiac muscle. Primus would gently waken Holton by licking his face, interrupting the night terror and “rebooting” his sleep cycle.

As a master’s student, Holton designed a grant proposal to train dogs to become therapy-certified for law enforcement agencies. His class, led by Elizabeth Mustaine, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, empowered the students to take Holton’s mock proposal and submit it as an actual grant proposal.

The grant was not approved, but the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office agreed to fund the therapy dog program as a pilot study. Results from the study were so promising, Holton said, that the agency created a training facility, using inmates to train unwanted dogs from animal shelters.

The program “benefits not only the inmates, who learn empathy and unconditional love that they may have been missing,” Holton said, “but it also helps the disabled, veterans, child victims and law enforcement, all at minimum cost.”

It also helps the dogs. “Paisley was a throwaway dog,” Holton said, referring to Det. Matt Scott’s therapy dog who is now at UCF Police Department. “To see the project come full circle,” Holton said, “It’s been really, really awesome.”

Holton recently left the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office for the Bozeman (Montana) Police Department. He is developing a facility on a 880-acre ranch where first responders can receive resources, training and care for post-traumatic stress disorder. Primus is enjoying his retirement in Big Sky Country. Below, a view from Bozeman. 


Written by Camille Dolan ’98

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