The Illinois State University Police Department (ISUPD) recently welcomed a new employee who is paid in treats, toys, and scratches behind the ears.
Meet “Pawfficer” Sage, a two-year-old black Labrador serving as a community engagement dog with the police. Even though Sage will not be involved in direct law enforcement activities, she will fulfill an important role in the department.
“It’s unique in the sense that there aren’t a lot of police departments that use a dog for engagement purposes,” Police Chief Aaron Woodruff said. “Her role is to be pet and loved by the community and to bridge the gap between police and the communities we serve.”
Illinois State was inspired by Marquette University to hire Sage. Marquette brought its own community outreach dog, Nattie, to campus in 2017. ISUPD Budget Manager Laura Fox spoke with Marquette Police Department staff who said Nattie’s presence has helped the department better reach the student population.
“Students have a hard transition coming to the University,” Fox said. “They leave behind friends, family, and pets. If we can bring one piece of that back, if we can bring a family pet to campus that they can call their own, how special would that be?”
Once Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson and President Larry Dietz approved of the hire, the search began to find the right dog for the job. Sage is trained as a facility dog, which means she lives in the Nelson Smith Building full time and needs to be able to bond with a lot of people.
“We wanted a dog with a lot of training, and finding an agency who was ready to work with us was difficult,” Fox said. “Not a lot of groups train dogs like Sage, so it was harder to find somebody.”
ISUPD partnered with SIT Service Dogs to start the process. Located in Ava, SIT has roots in McLean County and works with many shelters in the area. Sage received training to work as a service dog, but SIT staff thought she was too friendly for that role.
“Fortunately for us, Sage is very social, which isn’t always the best thing for a service dog,” Woodruff said. “She has those skills, but she has a little bit of a stubborn streak. She likes being around people, so they knew that while she might not be a great service dog, she was perfect for what we were looking for.”
ISUPD decided to turn to Illinois State’s crowdfunding platform Hatch ISU to raise money to complete Sage’s training and get her ready for life at Illinois State. On June 21, the department shared a humorous video (see below) on social media announcing the project and what was needed. The Illinois State community generously responded by hitting the $4,000 goal in a week.
“We wanted people to feel invested in this and know their support made it happen,” Fox said. “Sage isn’t just the department’s dog, she is everyone’s dog. The campaign was important to us to help build that connection.”
Since joining the ISUPD in July, Sage has quickly made herself at home. She is part of ISUPD’s newest initiative, the Community Engagement Unit, and will serve with her fellow officers at events.
“We always knew community policing and outreach was important, but we didn’t always have the staffing available to attend all of the events we were asked to and fulfill our other duties,” Woodruff said. “We are at a place now where we have a few officers who can serve that purpose.”
Sage sleeps in a crate located in the Community Engagement Unit office, but she is free to roam the ISUPD offices and make new friends. Sage’s favorite toy is a tennis ball, and she can be seen running down the halls of the Nelson Smith Building to retrieve a ball thrown by one of the officers.
“We need to get a dog crossing sign or something,” Fox said.
The Illinois State community can expect to see Sage frequently starting this fall. Not only will she be at events such as Festival ISU and PAWSitively Stress Free, but she also will take daily walks with officers on campus. Woodruff encourages everyone to approach and greet her.
“We’re excited for everyone to meet Sage,” Woodruff said.