New Paltz University Police (UPD) has a new member and students and faculty alike are welcoming her with open arms. 9-month old silver lab, Ellie, has been making her way around campus since graduation last spring, getting herself accustomed to life as a therapy dog on campus. Her owner, Deputy Chief of Police, Ryan Williams, is overjoyed to be able to bring such a positive addition to policing at New Paltz.
“Starting a few years ago, there was a pretty big public outcry to change policing. You have to have your head in a hole if you don’t hear it and we hear it. But you can’t change big things overnight. It takes time. For instance, to change our hiring tactics and who we’re bringing on and then waiting for certain people to retire if it’s a personnel issue,” said Williams. “But I want people to know that we hear them. We understand what you want and we want to provide that service. So we want to engage in positive ways. We want to be there when you need support.”
During her campus debut, people flocked to Ellie with wide smiles asking to take photos with her. It was clear to Williams the difference she was already making. He recounted people coming up to him at graduation and asking him what Ellie’s job was. Many assumed she was supposed to find people that are lost or even to find drugs on campus. People would quickly react with surprise when Williams said she did neither of those things. He was excited to answer the question because to put it simply, “her job is what she’s doing right now,” providing joy and comfort to the public. “We’re sitting here having a conversation. You probably would have walked past me. I had no reason to walk up to you. But we’re just talking and now I know you’re from Buffalo and you’re here at graduation to watch your niece graduate and it just kept going and going,” he said.
Williams, who grew up in New Paltz, has been working for the University Police since 2002. After serving in the army for 4 years, he joined the department so that he could work nights and simultaneously take classes during the day to get his degree at SUNY Ulster. He had never planned to be a Police officer but the work family he created along the way, starting as a dispatcher and working his way to an officer, supervisor and now Deputy Chief quickly changed his mind. When taking on his current position, Williams wanted to ensure that students are comfortable with something as mundane as having simple conversations with officers. In his previous work with therapy dogs, Williams knew the effect Ellie would have on achieving this goal.
When Williams worked at a public school, he decided to bring his love for children and dogs together. At the time, he had a lab named Bailey and quickly got him trained and certified to be a therapy dog. The two got as involved with the school as they could until COVID-19 started and once schools had reopened, Bailey was able to go into classes to provide support to students who had recently lost their teacher to the illness. “I saw the positive that Bailey brought and the open lines of communication he created that weren’t previously there. He made us approachable,” said Williams. Sadly, once SUNY New Paltz had given him the green light to bring a therapy dog into the UPD, Bailey passed away. But that didn’t stop Williams.
“We started fresh, [Ellie] was eight weeks and three days old when I started bringing her to work,” said Williams. Ellie had a little bit of a different start than with Bailey who didn’t get his certification until he turned 5. Williams put down a deposit for a lab at a location where dogs were bred to be family-oriented. His name was then put on a list and depending on his number and how many puppies the dog had, determined if he would receive a puppy or not. Luckily enough, Williams was picked to choose a puppy. He knew that there were certain characteristics he was looking for. He didn’t want a puppy that sat in the corner all alone, but he also didn’t want one that was running around and messing with all the other puppies. He wanted a good middle ground.
Now that he had a puppy to train, Williams got to work. Aside from becoming an expert in the basics, sit, stay, paw, Ellie has also been training to pass her certifications. “It’s mostly geared towards the dog’s behavior in crowded rooms where there’s people with crutches and walkers. If you picture a community center like a nursing home. That’s what they’re really wanting: to make sure that your dogs are not going to take someone’s crutches away or knock somebody over that’s unstable,” explained Williams. He had found a place in Albany that posts videos on YouTube that goes over everything a dog could be tested on. Using these videos, Williams knew the steps he had to take and trained both Ellie and Bailey completely on his own.
In the meantime, Williams has been keeping a journal with all of his and Ellie’s accomplishments. Some things in the journal include sitting with students at media day, tabling for domestic violence awareness, racing with the swim team, hanging out at the job fair, etc. One particularly memorable event involved Ellie being asked to come to a class taught by a new professor who wanted some help in getting both himself and his students more comfortable in the new environment of a college classroom. Another event that Williams recalled was held in the middle of September and called “Pup with a Cup.” Students had the opportunity to play with Ellie as a Sodexo worker handed out ice cream on the academic concourse.
Williams is excited to fill up his journal and make sure that Ellie is supporting as many students as possible. Keep your eyes open for where to find Ellie next. With finals coming, Williams has several events planned geared toward supporting students during these stressful times. For more, follow Ellie on Instagram @upd_ellie.