Air Force canine comforts sexual assault victims
Shellie Severa, the 354th Fighter Wing’s sexual assault prevention and response head victim advocate, poses with Tessa, the first SAPR K-9, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Severa is a certified K-9 trainer. She serves as Tessa’s primary handler and has been working as a victim advocate for nine years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ashley Nicole Taylor)
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska — Tessa, the Air Force’s first sexual assault prevention and response K-9, is the most recent asset to the SAPR program here.
Tessa provides an alternative comfort solution when victims come forward, said Shellie Severa, the 354th Fighter Wing’s SAPR head victim advocate.
“Tessa brings a stability to reconnect with victims who have emotionally disconnected because of the traumatic event they have gone through,” Severa said. “Each individual is different on how they are going to handle their trauma, but one of the biggest things we see with almost all trauma victims is lack of trust, and trust can be re-established through the assistance of a dog.”
Severa, a nine-year victim advocate and certified K-9 trainer, serves as Tessa’s primary handler. She works daily with Tessa to ensure the dog remains mentally prepared to work with a victim. To gain exposure and familiarity for Tessa, Severa takes her around the installation to interact with many different people so she can learn her role as a service dog.
Tessa ‘Must Remain in a Work Mindset’
“The most difficult part for people is realizing Tessa isn't a puppy to be played with and roughhouse; she must remain in a work mindset and stay readily available to assist a victim if needed,” Severa said. “I distinguish work from playtime by placing her work vest on and telling Tessa, ‘It’s time to go to work,’ and she understands we have a job to do.”
Beginning in the winter of 2016, the now 5-month-old golden retriever has already assisted seven victims, allowing the SAPR program to enhance its role around the 354th Fighter Wing.
“We are having victims come out of the shadows who were afraid for numerous reasons to report; having a dog in the program is important for them to realize this is a place where they are safe and can rebuild trust,” Severa said. “Tessa has brought many smiles to people engaging with her, and encouraged people to tell their story, which helps them to have a voice again and take back the power they lost.”
To initiate a new program such as the SAPR K-9, the support of many individuals was required, along with many people working behind the scenes to ensure Tessa could gain her credentials as a service dog.
“As the base public health officer and a veterinarian, I facilitated the use of Tessa as a service dog,” said Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Kelly Franklin, the 354th Medical Operations Squadron public health flight commander. “I reviewed Tessa’s vaccination records [and] her service dog certification and verified Mrs. Severa's credentials as a handler.”
Aside from focusing on the dog’s formal certifications and medical aspects, Franklin had to look at how well Tessa connected with others.
“I also observed Tessa's behavior and evaluated her temperament to see how she interacts with people to ensure she was a good fit for the Air Force,” Franklin said. “I look forward to watching Tessa with her handlers and seeing the progression and impact they will have at Eielson Air Force Base and throughout the Air Force.”
Inspiring Other SAPR Programs
The SAPR team hopes that Tessa’s success will encourage other bases to follow suit, allowing the primary focus of victim care to increase across the Department of Defense.
"It’s been phenomenal having a tiny member of our team accomplish so much positivity in the short amount of time she’s been here," said Air Force Capt. Heather Novus, the 354th Fighter Wing’s sexual assault response coordinator. “I hope we can smooth the transition for other bases to adopt a SAPR K-9, and we would love to assist supporting this idea across other installations and can ease the process for others to adopt what has been a successful program so far.”
More than six years in the SAPR program, Novus said, she appreciates Tessa and says an increase in reporting means she is doing her job and improving the reputation of the SAPR office in an inspiring way.
“We know sexual assaults are happening, and Tessa has brought people forward that otherwise might not be comfortable with the SAPR office,” Novus said. “We want victims to come forward without hesitation and with the understanding they can talk to us without being required to make a report, and so we can direct them to the agencies they need assistance from.”
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