COLUMBUS (WCMH) – Top dogs from around the U.S. and Canada are in central Ohio this week training to become their communities’ newest mental health assets. The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is hosting a therapy K9 training school for more than a dozen law enforcement agencies.

“One of the things we wanted to do was to help every agency we could to start their programs because we saw such a benefit by utilizing Mattis,” said FCSO Deputy Darrah Metz.

Mattis, Deputy Metz’s 4-year-old English Labrador Retriever, is a founding member of Franklin County’s therapy K9 unit. When the program started in 2017 as an initiative to promote community relations, it was the first in the state and one of only six such units in the U.S.

“Our mission became victim advocacy, mental health, and trauma,” Metz said. “Our jobs as police officers and first responders is to build those bridges and create conversations, and these dogs serve as our ice breakers, so to speak.”

She explained the therapy K9s often respond to scenes of traumatic crimes to soothe both victims and first responders. They may also accompany victims to court, lay with them at the witness stand, or provide a source of comfort during investigative interviews.

Metz added, “When you think of a therapy K9, you may think of visiting hospitals, visiting nursing homes. Our K9s are exposed to a lot of different stimuli.”

The week-long training course, held at both the National K9 Learning Center and the Franklin County Support Services building, exposes the K9s-in-training to noises, smells and other distractions they could face in the real world. Metz’s team lead the K9 duos in exercises and take them on public outings to interact with as many different people as possible.

“I can’t wait to go back and share all of the things we’ve learned here and help to make this program grow,” said Constable Krista Fagan of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

Cst. Fagan and her K9 partner Stella are the first law enforcement therapy K9 duo in the Canadian province and the first international students in the FCSO training school.

Even before she’s achieved her therapy K9 certification, Stella is something of a local celebrity in the province, with a massive social media following and instant recognition during most public outings.

“She has made quite the impact in our community,” said Fagan. “This is just another thing we can bring to our community and bring to first responders as well.”

She explained Stella provides an escape from the stressors of the job, as well as a comfort to trauma victims.

“Ever since Stella became my partner, my own mental health and my own mental wellness has been wonderful just having her around,” Fagan said.

Many of the dogs will graduate Friday with therapy K9 certifications and return home ready to provide mental and emotional support in their communities.

“Things are changing, the world is changing, and I think this is a fantastic tool,” Fagan said. “I’m already seeing the positive effects in our community.”

Metz said the sheriff’s office is providing the training she wished they had access to when the program started in Franklin County and wants to see therapy K9s programs continue to be adopted.

“The more that we can do to help our own and to help our communities, the better off we are as a whole,” Metz said.

She said there’s already a waiting list for future therapy K9 training courses.