The door swings wide for me, opened by someone on the inside who is pressing the activation switch.
“He’s a gentleman,” Albuquerque police Sgt. Amanda Wild says of her partner’s graciousness.
He’s also a dog, and he knows how to open doors.
Graham, a burly English black Lab, is not only a polite dog but a unique one, the only crisis response dog working with an agency in New Mexico, Wild says.
“He’s a sworn officer with APD,” says Terry Huertaz, the department’s victim liaison manager and a fan of Graham’s.
Then again, everybody seems to be a fan of Graham’s.
“This dog has made an impact on so many lives,” Wild says. “People light up when they see him. They feel like they know him, because they do.”
It’s Crime Victims’ Rights Week and I am here to get to know and interview Graham (though, mostly, I will let his team of humans speak for him) at the Family Advocacy Center in Downtown Albuquerque, where victims in crisis come for comfort, care and sometimes to report the crime perpetrated against them.
This is Graham’s turf, comforting and caring as only a special dog can be. Graham, who will receive his police badge this week, is part of APD’s effort to become more attentive to the needs of crime victims.
“Working with victims of violent sexual assaults and domestic violence, it’s scary sometimes for them to speak with us. What they see first is a badge and a gun,” Wild says. “But Graham brings a calmness. There’s nothing better than seeing this knucklehead ease the tension, make them comfortable, maybe bring a smile to their face.”
Graham, all 74 pounds of him, is often brought into an interview room, if a crime victim wishes, to break the ice, calm fears, ease tensions. Often, recordings of interviews with victims include his gentle snoring.
As we talk, Graham, in his official red service vest, pads around the conference room, checking on everyone, finally settling next to me, his big head resting on my foot, and I am smitten.
Wild, who has been with APD’s sex crimes unit for 10 years and its sergeant since 2017, says she fought to have a crisis response dog join the ranks. At first, her idea received a few eye rolls.
But Wild, who doesn’t believe in the word ‘no,’ kept pushing, eventually winning the support of her superiors, including APD Chief Harold Medina.
Wild also won support from PNM, which wrote the $12,000 check for a crisis response dog. The cost includes a meticulously selected pup plus intensive 18- to 24-month training and ongoing refresher training provided by Assistance Dogs of the West.
The Santa Fe-based agency trains service dogs – mostly Labs, golden retrievers and labradoodles, which have gentle temperaments – from puppyhood for people with disabilities, diabetes, for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and for work in therapeutic settings, drug treatment centers, hospitals, children’s programs and courts across the country.
Among its alumni is Woodstock, beloved courthouse dog for the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office – and Graham’s uncle.
In 2020, Wild began the “fitting process,” a sort of speed dating with dogs to determine the right match, a key component in the bonding between what becomes a nearly inseparable relationship.
Graham felt like the one for her from the start, she says, but at the time he was six months shy of his second birthday, the optimal age for him to be ready for work.
Later that year after trying out a few dogs that didn’t quite fit, Wild returned to Graham, and everything clicked.
“He’s just a big wiggle butt,” she says as he heads to his usual place at her left side, opposite her gun holster. “A big handsome boy.”
Graham, who turns 4 this fall, knows both verbal and nonverbal commands, remains calm and agreeable even in traumatic situations and when hugged or handled too hard. When not assisting with victims, he can be found quietly walking from office to office on the APD side of the Family Advocacy Center, making his rounds, seeking nothing but a pat and perhaps a dog treat or two.
Graham not only works to comfort victims of sexual assault and domestic violence but those traumatized by homicide, among them the four younger siblings of Bennie Hargrove, a 13-year-old Washington Middle School student who investigators say was trying to stop a classmate from bullying his friends when he was shot and killed Aug. 13.
“I can’t even express to you what these kids have gone through when we lost Bennie like that,” grandmother Vanessa Sawyerr says. “But when those kids saw that dog – I wish I could have taken him home with us. He brought life back to them. He brought back the smiles I was missing.”
One of her youngest grandchildren, who turns 7 this week, is on the autism spectrum, which made it even harder for him to express his grief, Sawyerr says.
“But when he saw Graham, he just kept hugging him and hugging him, and it’s like Graham knew to just let him hold him, like he was saying `Yeah, I like you, too,'” she says. “He was soothing, loving and comforting.”
In the eight months since Bennie’s death, the siblings have continued to visit with Graham. It helps, Sawyerr says.
“I know when the kids need another `Graham Special,’ when they get to relax and laugh and feel safe,” she says. “I wish there were more Grahams. There are so many people in crisis, so many who need him.”
It’s not just victims who need him.
“Graham helps in our own healing,” Wild says. “He is part of our way to take care of those on both sides of the door.”
Wild says she is hopeful that Graham is opening doors for more crisis response dogs to be employed by law enforcement and first-responder agencies because of their ability to open the hearts of crime victims and crime investigators alike.
“He’s a valuable member of the team,” she says.
Graham lives with Wild, her husband and their four other dogs in the East Mountains. When she – and he – retire in six years, he will live out his days with her.
As I leave, Graham gives a wag of his tail and follows Huertaz and APD public information officer Rebecca Atkins out the door for a video shoot. Work, for him, goes on.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org.