A new leash on life as a peer support K-9

Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station Peer Support Canine, Ginger, gets a treat from Captain Justin Diez, left, Sergeant Kristen Deschino and Rabbi Eric Morgenstern, Chaplain at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station iin Valencia on Tuesday, 102621. Dan Watson/The Signal

Whoever said old dogs can’t learn new tricks hasn’t met Ginger, the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station’s new peer support K-9.

“We’ve had a rough year and a half,” Capt. Justin Diez said, noting that it began with the pandemic, continuing into nationwide protests and calls to “defund the police” before another wave of COVID-19 hit. “As those things were progressing, we thought there was a need for support at the station.”

That’s where 11-year-old Ginger comes in — her sweet disposition is the perfect tool in connecting with deputies who are facing growing tensions and might be silently suffering, whether from personal or work issues.

“We’re a hard group to read … everyone’s stoic,” Diez said, “(but) everyone loves dogs.”

Ginger was recently trained to join the SCV Sheriff’s Station’s arsenal of mental wellness programs that include deputies who are trained in peer support, a chaplains program, and the Psychological Services Bureau, which provides services to deputies and their families at no cost.

Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station Peer Support Canine, Ginger at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station iin Valencia on Tuesday, 102621. Dan Watson/The Signal

A year and a half in the making

Diez initially tried to get the SCV Sheriff’s Station’s working dogs, Dewey and Hobby, to help out on their off-hours, quickly realizing they weren’t up for the task, as they were too well trained for duty, not playtime.

“We wanted to start a (peer support K-9) program at the station but didn’t know how. … It’s never been done before,” Diez said.

It was then that Sgt. Kristen Deschino, a dog lover herself, volunteered to spearhead the efforts to implement the program, while Ginger’s owner, Sheriff’s Station chaplain Rabbi Eric Morgenstern, volunteered his pup for the gig.

“I thought it would be great for (Ginger) because that’s her personality … she’s very much a caregiver,” Morgenstern said, adding that she’s done just that for his other dogs who were sick — and even Morgenstern himself when he was injured. “She’s very caring and supportive.”

With the help of the SCV Sheriff’s Station Foundation and its President Gloria Mercado-Fortine, which funded the startup costs, including Ginger’s training, Deschino and Morgenstern got to work.

Ginger went through training with Blue Line Dogs, which was founded by retired Los Angeles Police Department detective Gil Escontrias to train service dogs for the benefit of law enforcement and first responders.

Along with obedience training, Ginger was prepared for the task at hand, receiving exposure training to the various situations she could encounter.

And while the training was rigorous, it was the red tape the station had to cut through with County Counsel in forming a new program from the ground up that was most difficult.

“It’s been a year and a half process … to develop a contract and just answer any of those ‘what ifs’ in what were to happen in having an animal on our property,” Deschino said.

Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station Peer Support Canine, Ginger, and Rabbi Eric Morgenstern, Chaplain at the SCV Sheriff’s Station in Valencia on Tuesday, 102621. Dan Watson/The Signal

Hard work pays off

After long hours of contract negotiations and training, Ginger has officially been certified as the SCV Sheriff’s Station’s peer support K-9 — and she’s loving every second of it.

“She’s absolutely perfect for this line of work, and she’s done great,” Morgenstern said. “She has complete purpose.”

Each time he reaches for her service vest, Ginger knows she’s going to the station, Morgenstern noted, adding that even the deputies are excited to see her.

“The last time I rolled out to the station, I was in the parking lot and everybody was getting ready to go out, and they all yelled for her and recognized her — not me,” Morgenstern said. “Everybody that I’ve run into will stop and pet her. … The fact that they remember her name says volumes.”

While it may be difficult to get the deputies to open up to a psychologist or chaplain, it’s not difficult to get them to say hi to Ginger, Diez said.

“The coolest thing is you don’t even realize you’re getting the support as it’s happening. … It’s just therapeutic in nature,” Deschino added.

Ginger comes to the station a few times a week and after any critical incident or traumatic call, whether it’s a death, fire, deputy-involved shooting or baby not breathing, supporting deputies in any situation that may be difficult for them.

Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station Sergeant Kristen Deschino, left, Peer Support Canine, Ginger, and Rabbi Eric Morgenstern, Chaplain at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station iin Valencia on Tuesday, 102621. Dan Watson/The Signal

Spreading the puppy power

Seeing the benefit Ginger has had already had on the station, not only does the SCV Sheriff’s Station hope to expand the program in-house — as Diez jokes he’d love to have a whole army of peer support dogs for the station — but they also hope it is implemented department-wide.

“The goal is for us to be a model for the whole department,” Diez said.

Now, Ginger and the peer support K-9 program created at the SCV Sheriff’s Station have paved the way for others in the department to implement similar programs.

“It provides the structure for the program now moving forward,” Deschino added, “and that blueprint will then be used anywhere else in the county should other sheriff’s stations want to introduce a dog.”

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