Birmingham police officers Josh Husted and David Buttigieg stand with Bella, the department’s new therapy dog.

Birmingham police officers Josh Husted and David Buttigieg stand with Bella, the department’s new therapy dog.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Beauty and the badge

K-9 Bella sworn in as Birmingham PD therapy dog

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 1, 2018


BIRMINGHAM — “My new employee weighs 68 pounds, stands about 20.5 inches tall, she has four legs, a tail and goes by the name of Bella,” Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence told the City Commission Sept. 17.

In her full official ensemble, Bella the black Lab and golden retriever mix ambled toward the front of the commission chambers upon her introduction. Clemence explained that her role on the force — just the third K-9 for the Police Department — is to serve as a therapy dog for victims of traumatic crimes and, well, anyone around who might benefit from a smile and some head pats.

“One of my department goals this year was to better engage with the community. So I thought, ‘What’s something everyone loves? Everyone loves dogs,’” Clemence said. “The officers can walk her into downtown, into schools, and Bella is like the icebreaker. She could bridge that gap for people to feel comfortable talking to our officers.”

Bella’s résumé is short and sketchy and involves prison time — she was fired from her last gig at Leader Dogs for the Blind.

“Basically, what happened to her is she was bred to be a Leader Dog, then she was sent to the Chippewa Correctional Facility in the (Upper Peninsula), and she spent 11 months inside the prison with an inmate for training,” he explained. “Then, when she came back down here, they determined she just wasn’t right for the job. She’s easily distracted. She sees a fuzzy in the wind or a leaf blowing and she wants to play with it. It’s cute to see, but not helpful to a blind person.”

So she underwent a “career change,” as they say in the industry, and Clemence trained with Bella at Beaumont Hospital to see if therapy service might be a good fit.

Boy, was it ever.

“She can be touched all over without wincing or turning her head or raising her paw. She sits down in front of someone and sometimes just lays down. Kids love that, and she just loves them,” said Carla Grava, Bella’s volunteer trainer.

Grava, a Birmingham resident, owned a kennel for several years before joining the animal assistance program at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak. There are currently anywhere from 60 to 70 dogs in training with the hospital, and Bella was top dog in her class.

“Bella was a breeze,” Grava said. “There’s a lot of things going on in a hospital. There’s people and food and medicines, all kinds of smells, but she’s very calm. She gets into the elevator and doesn’t have any problems. And she’ll go right up to a patient and put her head, maybe even her paws, on the bed and just snuggle up.”

Clemence takes Bella home each day once she clocks out, and until then she just hangs around Birmingham City Hall — making friends with the staff and getting as many treats as she can scam.

“Oh, she’s so spoiled by the Clerk’s Office,” Clemence said with a laugh.

But the biscuits are very much earned. Already, Bella’s assisted in a number of cases, including a disoriented Alzheimer’s patient and an abused child.

“We recently had a child sexual assault victim here, and the officer … was taking her report, and the whole time (the child) was petting the dog, who just sat right by her side. She wasn’t as emotional as she might’ve been in that situation without Bella,” Clemence said.

In the future, he added, it would be nice to bring a tracking K-9 onto the force as well. But for now, Bella is making Birmingham proud by bringing a little levity to law enforcement.

“They allowed me to pin her at her (swearing in),” Grava said. “It was an honor and a privilege. I was very proud of Bella.”