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Iowa sheriff’s office welcomes new crisis response K-9 raised by inmates

The Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office received K-9 Mary from a program called Puppies Behind Bars, a program that trains inmates to raise puppies that are sent to law enforcement agencies, first responders and wounded veterans

By Maria Kuiper
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

WATERLOO, Iowa — Although she’s sworn to defend the Constitution, the newest deputy at the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office walks around the department demanding to be petted.

Mary, a 2-year-old black lab, was sworn in earlier this month. Her handler, Deputy Karla Altenbaumer, will work with the dog to provide crisis response and increase community engagement.

The sheriff’s office received Mary from a program called Puppies Behind Bars, based in New York. The program trains incarcerated individuals to raise puppies starting at 8 weeks old. Once trained, the puppies are sent off to law enforcement agencies, first responders and wounded veterans.

Mary was raised in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security level facility for women in New York. The woman assigned to Mary — called a raiser — trained, fed, groomed and exercised her for about 16 months. The organization teaches raisers how to train puppies to be caregivers while the puppies live in their cells with them.

Altenbaumer picked up Mary from the prison in January. While she was there, the puppy raiser showed her what she taught Mary.

“It’s super cool to see, like, just how proud they are of everything they’ve done even when they’ve messed up in life,” Altenbaumer said. “Now they know that they’ve made this beautiful creature, and they get to know what Mary will do.”

Altenbaumer said when she left with Mary, her raiser was crying. Not just because she had to send Mary off, but because she “knew Mary was gonna go do amazing things.”

The sheriff’s department learned about Puppies Behind Bars when Sheriff Tony Thompson and Capt. Mark Herbst visited a conference focused on community engagement. They got in touch with the program’s staff and asked who in Black Hawk County would be interested in working with a dog. Altenbaumer — who loves dog — quickly volunteered. After being chosen, she went through nearly six months of interviews with the organization.

At a county Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Thompson said Mary and Altenbaumer will help with increased mental health calls in the area.

Altenbaumer described Mary as a therapy dog with a badge and said she is very intuitive to human emotions. She can be deployed to comfort someone at a crime scene or be used as a stress reliever for children testifying in court.

“You could sit there for hours and just pet her, and she’ll sit there and listen all day because she’s not going to talk back to you,” she said. “If someone wants to just cry on her or just hug her or hold her or whatever, she’ll allow that.”

The deputy wished Mary had arrived a few weeks earlier. She would have taken the dog to Perry to comfort children, teachers and families after the Jan. 4 school shooting in which two people were killed and six were injured. Altenbaumer said she would’ve let Mary off her leash because “she just knows what to do.”

The two are essentially on call 24/7, even though they aren’t required to be.

“If somebody needs her, I want to be there,” she said. “It has nothing to do with me, I’m just her Uber.”

“It’s not going to solve the trauma they’re going through,” she continued, “but it can help them maybe get through another day.”

Altenbaumer is the department’s community engagement officer and has worked with Elevate CCBHC, a local mental health service. She also is involved with the department’s peer support program.

She’s an advocate for mental health and getting rid of its stigma, and she believes Mary will help with that.

“She’s only been at the sheriff’s office for two weeks, but to already see the things that she’s doing is very rewarding,” Altenbaumer said. “It’s a cheesy line, but the sky’s the limit.”


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