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Four therapy dogs will comfort Clearwater crime victims

CLEARWATER — Caleb arrived at the Clearwater Police Department and stretched out on the floor, his thick black fur draped over his eyes. A 5-year-old boy and his 22-month-old sister clambered on top of the dog. They petted him and stared at his big paws.

Caleb, a certified therapy dog, spent time with the children on June 5, 2012, before they met with detectives. That morning, the children were with their mother, Ingrid Agbebaku, as she was shot to death in her condominium by their estranged father, Eugene Agbebaku. He later killed himself outside on a quiet neighborhood street off McMullen-Booth Road.

Playing with Caleb kept the children busy, said Christine Barsema, the dog's owner. A therapy dog can be especially helpful because it is "with them right from the start when emotions of everybody are pretty raw," she said.

Caleb, a 120-pound Bouvier des Flandres, is one of four dogs in the Clearwater Police Department's new therapy dog program.

The dogs will provide comfort and support to adults and children who are victims and witnesses of violent crimes such as sex offenses and homicides, said Sgt. Laura Spelman of the department's Crimes Against Children and Families Unit.

"We can use the dogs to take their minds off whatever traumatizing thing they just witnessed," Spelman said.

Barsema, a Clearwater police volunteer, owns two of the dogs in the program: 6-year-old Caleb and 4-year-old Kinsey, a brown-haired Norwich terrier. Both animals have previously visited patients at local hospitals.

Children and elderly people gravitate toward Kinsey, known for wagging her short tail at strangers.

Caleb, also certified as a disaster stress relief dog, has previously participated in dog competitions.

"He's a real magnet, that big one," Barsema said. "He just lays like a rug."

The other two service dogs in the program are German shepherds Aino and Obi, owned by the department's victim advocate, Belinda Darcy.

Darcy has owned 8-year-old Obi and 5-year-old Aino since they were pups. Both were certified as therapy dogs as youngsters. Obi has previously visited a domestic abuse shelter. Aino, also a competition dog, has spent time with veterans at C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, formerly Bay Pines, recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual assault, Darcy said.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department do not have their own therapy dogs, but the Pinellas County Justice Center has a similar program called "Pawsibilities." About eight dogs there spend time with children who are victims of sexual abuse before they testify in court or while they give depositions, said program organizer Lori Fricker.

"When the victim advocate or the State Attorney's Office feels that the children need a little bit of extra encouragement, a little bit of extra love," she said, "they call us."

At the Clearwater Police Department, Caleb, Kinsey, Aino and Obi also provide some stress relief to employees, Spelman said. She recalled Caleb's calming presence during the Agbebaku murder-suicide investigation in June 2012.

"Even the detectives who were working the case would stop in and kind of pet and love him," she said.

Darcy brings Aino or Obi to work occasionally.

"When you bring the dogs in, it's amazing. Staff stop. They all want to talk to them. They all want to love on them," she said. "It's amazing to see them put smiles on people's faces."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

Four therapy dogs will comfort Clearwater crime victims 03/12/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 6:49pm]
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