Emerson, the popular Golden Retriever and Labrador mix who offered consolation to those in need as the La Habra Police Department’s comfort K9, has died after nearly a decade of service. He was 13 years old.
Whether he was greeting children at local events or helping police officers deal with traumatic situations, Emerson was a significant part of the community, said Mike Murphy, the department’s lead chaplain and Emerson’s handler.
“Emerson was a true comfort to people,” said Murphy, whose office wall features pictures of Emerson and carries the tag that Emerson used to wear. “The outpouring of love for this dog – I just didn’t realize what kind of impact he had on people.”
Emerson’s role as the department’s comfort K9 was actually his second career. The 105-pound dog was actually bred and trained to be a guide dog for the blind.
Murphy and his family, who opened their home to raise dogs for Guide Dogs of America, received their first trainee, a seven-week-old pup they named Emerson.
Although it was difficult to do, they parted with Emerson at 18 months, assuming he would go on to become a guide dog.
Then, about two months later, Guide Dogs of America decided Emerson wasn’t cut out to be a guide dog. Being a guide dog is a rigorous responsibility – only one out of four trainees ultimately become guide dogs, Murphy said.
“He came back to us, which was God’s plan,” Murphy said. “And so we got him back and we didn’t want to waste all of that training. What could he do to help people?”
They contacted Pet Prescription, an organization that gears dogs toward pet therapy and within weeks Emerson became a therapy dog in 2009.
Around this time, a chaplain at his church gave Murphy the idea to use Emerson as a comfort K9 for the police department to help people in crisis. Murphy approached the interim police chief at the time, who signed off on the idea. Around 2010, Emerson officially became a member of the police department.
“We got Emerson a jacket that said ‘Police Department’ on it and put his name on it and then made him what we call our comfort K9,” Murphy said. “We went on calls when the department needed some assistance with somebody who may have a death in the home or a child in crisis.”
They participated in dozens of calls and events in the last eight years. Murphy recalled a young woman who was involved in an accident on La Habra Boulevard and was so traumatized by the event that she couldn’t speak.
Unable to debrief the woman, officers called in Murphy and Emerson to reach out to her.
“We were in the briefing room of the police department, and I walked into the room and Emerson just walked away from me and walked right to her,” Murphy said. “He puts his head right in her lap and he’s telling her, ‘Pet me.’ I just sit back and I’m in awe watching him work. She starts petting him and the first words out of her mouth were, ‘I used to have a dog like this.'”
Police were able to break through to the woman and get the information they needed.
“Everything worked well on that one but it never would have started without Emerson,” Murphy said. “He was that calming force that came into the room, and so many times I had things that were very, very traumatic. And the thing about Emerson is that he could walk into a room and nothing fazed him, nothing bothered him. He was just calm and collected.”
Emerson was a fixture at the police department, where the canine would go from desk to desk, greeting officers.
“He brought an even softer, gentler side to the police department,” Murphy said. “And there’s not a place in La Habra that doesn’t know Emerson.”
Emerson’s work has inspired other police departments to consider comfort or crisis K9s in their departments. Murphy hopes to continue Emerson’s legacy by training another dog to be a comfort K9.
“His job was to be of help,” Murphy said. “We’re all about community policing and Emerson was the ultimate in community policing.”