Paw patrol: Stark County gets four-legged emotional support deputy
Myria, a black lab puppy, is Stark County's newest deputy. She will serve as an emotional support dog for area schools and other programs throughout the community.
DICKINSON — The Stark County Sheriff’s Office has a new four-legged deputy — albeit with a much more gentle role than the other three on staff. Unlike her fellow K-9 colleagues who are used for the detection of narcotics and apprehending suspects, Myria's role is to bring comfort to those in need.
A 3-month-old black lab puppy, she has already been working her magic throughout the community in her role as an emotional support dog with visits to the Domestic Violence Crisis Center earlier this week.
Sheriff Corey Lee said the idea came in part from recalling the first drug dog he worked with as a Dickinson Police officer. Lee says it was a playful chocolate lab that he frequently took along to visit local elementary school students. In his career in law enforcement, he touted the successes emotional support dogs have played in the West Fargo Police Department and Morton County Sheriff’s Office.
Lee said he has taken steps to ensure that Myria will not incur any additional costs to Stark County taxpayers. This dog was purchased for the department by the nonprofit Stark County Association of Deputies. The rest of the K-9 program is funded primarily by community donations and other non-county means, with the exception of a twice monthly maintenance fee of seven hours overtime that must be paid to each of the other three dogs’ handlers per federal regulation.
“That’s why I’ve listed myself as the primary handler. I’m not eligible for overtime,” he said.
Earlier this month, Lee found a Sioux Falls labrador breeder who agreed to meet him in Fargo with two dogs to choose from. Lee explained the behavioral cues that led him to pick Myria over her brother.
“When he got a little pressure from the kid, he would run under a chair and hide. When the kid was in his face, he would kind of back up a little bit,” he said. “That’s basically an indicator he’ll probably bite someone eventually. Meanwhile, she’s up in his face licking and hugging.”
He also explained how an emotional support dog had a profound impact on one special needs student.
“When she would have a meltdown, she'd go to the bathroom, start cutting herself, you know and basically lock herself in a stall until the anxiety attack was over,” Lee said. “On the days the dog was there, and this was just a personal dog; when she'd start to have her anxiety attack she’d go sit with a dog. That was her time to decompress. She's spending that time with the dog rather than running to the bathroom and hurting herself. And I thought that was a solid example of what we can do here.”
Lee says he wants to make sure Myria is helping as many people as possible, particularly children. He acknowledged that, much like officers, she can’t be everywhere at once.
“If there's a situation arising or an event coming up where you believe the dog would be beneficial, give us a call and we'll try to get her there to you,” he said.
In addition to local schools, Myria will be making visits to Hope’s Landing, Sunrise Youth Bureau and Chatter Pediatric Therapy.
Lee said the idea for Myria’s name came to him in a quasi-spiritual experience.
“I thought we were going to be taking the male before we actually tested them. So we were coming up with male names and thought we had one. Well, curve ball, here comes the female and we had no names,” he said. “I was sleeping Sunday night. My eyes popped open and Myria literally came out of my mouth. Myria (Walker) is actually the daughter of Penny Lewis who passed away a few weeks ago.”
Lee said he spoke with Lewis and asked her permission to honor her late daughter by naming the puppy in her memory. Lewis agreed.
Walker, 49, was a resident of Gladstone, N.D. and an alumnus of Dickinson High School. She died of small cell carcinoma on May 31, 2022.
Lee noted that his decision to pick Myria over the other option was solidified after a walk outside the hotel in Fargo with the puppy. He says that when they came back into the hotel he noticed a teenage girl crying in the lobby.
“On our way back into the hotel, she went straight to that girl who was crying and jumped up trying to get in her lap, which she eventually did,” Lee said. “She’ll chase people around all day. She wants to be with people.”