Therapy dog brings natural skillset to OSI mission

  • Published
  • By Wayne Amann
  • OSI Public Affairs

Diversity and Inclusion encompasses contributions from various walks of life – including “Man’s Best Friend.”

In that all-inclusive spirit, Office of Special Investigations Detachment 439, at the United States Air Force Academy, now sports a member of its team that delivers valuable, tangible support without saying a word.

Enter Oliver, a five-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, belonging to Special Agent Nicole Sawicki, Senior Enlisted Leader of Det. 439 and 19-year Air Force veteran.

The duo successfully completed evaluations Oct. 8 and 9 in Denver and Colorado Springs to earn the American Kennel Club Community Canine Advanced Canine Good Citizen and AKC Urban Canine Good Citizen certificates, plus a spot on the Go Team (Therapy Dogs) of Colorado.

Founded in 2012, the Go Team Therapy Dogs mission is to train handler-dog teams, placing well-trained, certified therapy dogs in programs providing comfort and caring through a canine-human bond. The teams provide help to victims in distress and work with servicemen, first responders, and anywhere a therapy/comfort dog is needed.

Dogs must be at least one year old prior to attending the two-day class, which includes real life situations such as working in assisted living and nursing homes, library/literacy events, special community events, airport security drills, elevator/stair drills, airport comfort, interacting with first responders, and more.

“During our training I learned that not every dog or handler is cut out to be a therapy dog/handler team,” said Sawicki, who also owns a second yellow lab and a Jack Russell Terrier. “However, Oliver’s overall demeanor has always been welcoming and calming. He’s very empathetic and I believe he can sense when someone is struggling or needs extra love and attention. I knew Oliver would be a great fit. It was something a felt passionate about sharing.”

Oliver’s skills have been used by Det. 439 special agents during an interview session with a victim and a witness for investigations.

“Oliver can be energetic but also calming,” Sawicki said, explaining the influence her dog has on an interview setting. “I believe he can sense what is needed from each person.”   

SA Sawicki is coordinating with other USAFA units to set up visits to many military members and cadets asking for Oliver's presence during interviews.     

Recently, Oliver and other Go Team volunteers rallied around the USAFA headquarters Judge Advocate team for crisis support, following the tragic loss of one of their members in a vehicle accident. So far, Oliver has brought his special therapy to residents and staff at the Cedar Springs Behavioral Health center, the USAFA Doggies and Dessert event for cadets, employees at the Amazon Distribution Center, and Colorado College students. In addition, because of the shooting tragedy at Club-Q, Oliver and Sawicki have had multiple opportunities to support the community by visiting police, fire fighters, medics, 911 dispatchers and grieving community members.

“Every night since Sunday, Nov. 20, Oliver and I have gone to a different event to offer our support and Oliver’s love,” Sawicki said.

Sawicki believes there’s a viable place for therapy dogs throughout the command.

“There’s a need for the resources therapy dogs provide, such as love, comfort and companionship, in what we all know can be a stressful job environment,” she said. “Research has shown therapy dogs can reduce blood pressure, increase endorphins and oxytocin, and lower cortisol levels. For me, I get to help my team, help those involved in our investigations, support our community, and spend as much time as possible with my best friend.”

The Go Team has grown significantly from its two original dog/handler teams. To date, more than 1,000 teams have gone through the training program. They are nationwide and are continuing to grow, providing comfort in a crisis, to hospitals, at airports, nursing homes, or anywhere people could use unconditional love from a four-legged friend much like Oliver.

“While not officially assigned to Det 439, it’s clear that Oliver has contributed profoundly to the OSI mission as well as delivering compassionate care to the local community through many furry hugs and kisses,” said SA Jessica Sunkamaneevongse, Det. 439 commander. “Who knows, he might earn an honorary badge one day!”