When Orono police officer Kyle Kirschner prepares to start his shift, his black Lab Xerxes does the same. The 3-year-old canine in the red vest snaps into work mode, tail wagging.
But unlike some police dogs that are trained to attack dangerous suspects, Xerxes’ specialty is connecting with trauma victims or those experiencing a mental health crisis. He’s the first canine in Minnesota to fill such a role in law enforcement, Orono officials said.
“He is an official member of the police department,” Orono Police Chief Correy Farniok said. “He just doesn’t have his badge yet.”
Orono police annually respond to 200 to 300 calls related to mental health issues in the community, Farniok said. Xerxes may tag along on some of those cases to help “in situations that are difficult to de-escalate,” he said.
Recently, for instance, Kirschner and Xerxes arrived at a scene where a man had fallen and suffered a bad head injury. The man’s wife and five children were “freaking out,” Kirschner said, so the officer took the kids to the backyard to play with Xerxes.
Xerxes may help defuse a variety of situations where people are anxious or distressed, such as when witness interviews are conducted on sensitive subjects such as domestic violence, Kirschner said.
The bouncy black Lab was originally trained by Can Do Canines to assist people with disabilities. “But Xerxes had other ideas,” said Alan Peters, executive director of the Minnesota-based training company, adding that the dog’s strength and energy made him better suited for his new job.
Xerxes, who graduated from his program in June, is trained to comfort people on command. When he’s told to “visit,” he puts his head on a person’s lap. When he’s told to “snuggle,” he cuddles up to kids.
And when Xerxes is off-duty, he likes to play with his rubber balls and plastic swimming pool. He lives with Kirschner, and the two spend a few hours most days patrolling the city to get to know the community.
“It’s to the point where people are asking for Xerxes, not me,” Kirschner said.
A lot of the canine’s work is supposed to be proactive, Kirschner said. He brings Xerxes to schools, nursing homes and community events to foster positive relationships between locals and the police.
“He’s probably the best fed and best paid member of the department,” Kirschner said, scratching his partner behind his black floppy ears. “In kibble, right?” Peters said.