The Border Patrol’s Support Canine Program

Border Patrol agents face unique and difficult situations in their daily work. Whether it’s arresting dangerous criminals, or rescuing those in peril, that kind of trauma can start to weigh on a person’s mental health. To help lift morale and put a friendly face on its community engagement efforts, Border Patrol has launched its Support Canine Program. To learn more about it and the four-legged agents who will be tasked with it, the Federal Drive...


Border Patrol agents face unique and difficult situations in their daily work. Whether it’s arresting dangerous criminals, or rescuing those in peril, that kind of trauma can start to weigh on a person’s mental health. To help lift morale and put a friendly face on its community engagement efforts, Border Patrol has launched its Support Canine Program. To learn more about it and the four-legged agents who will be tasked with it, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Robert Hess, Supervisory Border Patrol Agent and Support Canine Handler, along with his partner, Chappie.

Interview transcript:

Eric White Border Patrol agents face very unique and difficult situations in their daily work, whether it’s arresting dangerous criminals or rescuing those in peril. That kind of trauma can start to weigh on a person’s mental health to help lift morale and put a friendly face on its community engagement efforts. Border Patrol has launched its support K9 program. To learn more about it and the four legged agents who are part of the program, I have the chance to speak with Robert Hess, supervisory Border Patrol agent and support K9 handler along with his partner, Chappie.

Robert Hess Say hi. I know it’s Monday, but say hi. Okay. All right.

Eric White All right. That was great. Thanks for that. All right, Robert, why don’t you tell me a little bit about how this program got started.

Robert Hess So the last couple of years, the Border Patrol has seen an unprecedented number of deaths. Line of duty deaths, off duty deaths, suicides. And just in general, a lot of issues. Most recently, at least in the [Rio Grand Valley (RGV sector)], we’ve experienced a couple of suicides in the line of duty death. And during one of those suicides, I was asked to assist with a support K-9 that was brought in from [Office of Field Operations (OFO)]. A dog by the name of Izzy. And as Izzy’s handlers names Monica, and Monica as a OFO officer. And I had the opportunity to be with them and kind of see what they were doing, and just kind of taking mental note on the affectedness to see exactly how it worked. And I know prior to that, the ball was already rolling with the Border Patrol. They were already trying to make that happen. But definitely, at least in my mind, it cemented the importance of these canines, because I got to see it firsthand how effective they were with the families that were going through tough times.

Eric White Yeah, that was going to be my next question. That first time that you were out in the field and you were able to bring Chappie or any of the other dogs by the Guard stations, what was the reactions that you got?

Robert Hess Better than I expected. We are law enforcement. We got some some salty dogs in the Border Patrol. But honestly, I’ve been overwhelmed by the support. Chappie is a poodle, which doesn’t necessarily, it’s not the kind of dog you usually see in the Border Patrol. We usually have the German shepherd or that type of dog that’s much more aggressive. And Chappie is not aggressive. Chappie is a very kind and wants to be petted, wants to be with people. And so I would say, overall the reception has been very positive at the station and as well, I can’t help but look, he’s kind of all over the place and social media. So even the comments for the most part are very positive.

Eric White Yeah. So what does this employ? Does this mean you’re just you go around from guard station to guard station, are these scheduled visits? Are these impromptu visits? And do you just go in and just spend some time with the officers and talk with them? You’re a chaplain, so that’s part of your job as well. What does this entail?

Robert Hess So, yeah, on the day-to-day, we try to schedule what stations we’re going to go to. Our  mandate was to go to each shift, each station throughout our sector and introduce Chappie to all the stations. And that’s the primary exposure I get that the agents are getting right now to Chappie. Critical incidents take the first seat though, not everything can be scheduled. Things get changed and things have already gotten changed, at the last minute multiple times. He’s already participated in a funeral. We’ve gone to do a home visits to some families that either lost a loved one or an agent that died, an agent himself that died here recently in our giving. So those definitely take a priority to see in the stations. But he is in high demand. I get requests all the time from all the stations, they would love to see Chappie. And most places where I go they ask me to just to leave him there with them, to spend time with him. So he is enjoying all the love that he’s getting.

Eric White Yeah. As somebody who views all the press releases from CBP, as you mentioned. Yeah, there are some there’s some dark things that happened down there, especially at the southern border. Do you all have a decision process on while, we should probably head out there because you know X occurred? Or, I guess, I don’t want you to say what takes precedence over different horrible events. But how does that decision process go?

Robert Hess Oh, it’s not really an easy process and it’s super hard to say no. We want to be everywhere and help as much as we can. And luckily we haven’t had competing critical incidents. So I don’t know that I can really say what the precedence is going to be. I know that we’ll do our best to be where we need to be. And where needed, we’ll just divide our time and try to hit. Even with visiting the stations, I’m trying to hit multiple stations, multiple musters on any given day, which can be taxing, but that assures a lot of benefits to making people aware of Chappie and what he does.

Eric White Yeah, and as somebody with your experience, what are some of the emotional issues or the main emotional issues that you see in Border Patrol members? What are some of the main issues that they deal with after witnessing pretty dramatic stuff?

Robert Hess Well, that’s that’s a tough question, because the answers are all over the place. It’s an individual and everybody deals with trauma in different ways, and definitely not getting over past traumas kind of multiplies the effect of current traumas. So one of the benefits that I’m seeing to support K9 program in general, is that agents, they’re revisiting some of those things that they haven’t taken care of in the past.

Eric White Yeah, because Chappie probably let’s bring their guard down a little bit and help everybody feel a little bit more comfortable.

Robert Hess Exactly. And I think if there’s any one message that I would want our agents and our personnel to know is, that’s his purpose, is to bring calm, to help people feel like they’re in a safe place. One of the big takeaways that I got from Monica and Izzy, they do some work with the FBI in interviews with children. And Monica says that when she takes Izzy into to be with the children when they’re about to be interviewed. She just tells the kiddos that Izzy is an officer and they could tell Izzy anything that they want. And I think if you tell just about anybody that scenario, it makes perfect sense that would help a child feel calm and safe. And it’s the same thing for us. We want to act like we’re tougher than kids, but we’re not. We have the same struggles, and obviously, we’re older and have some experience and hopefully some wisdom, but the dog helps provide that safe space, provide that calm sensation that allows people to open up and not be so guarded, like you said.

Eric White And what about you, personally? Does it help to have a companion as long as you’re going around talking to guards about heavy topics like this?

Robert Hess Yeah, well, he doesn’t help me drive and he’s not much of a conversationalist on that ride. But man, I love having him around. He is all personality. And a lot of what’s been going on is just kind of getting to know one another and feeling kind of identifying what he wants and how to how to work with him. A lot of the training that we did revolved around that, just socialization, being around strangers, going to the airports, just going to different locations where he was exposed to a lot of different people, a lot of noises. We even went to Knott’s Berry Farm, an amusement park. So just the noise, the roller coasters and kids screaming and having a great time, just a lot of distractions for him. So for me, it was a good opportunity to see how he reacts in those kind of situations. And for me personally, how it affects me, it’s made me more introspective. It’s helped me take a second look at why we do what we do and feel what we feel. It’s been good for me.

Eric White Yeah, that was going to be one of my last questions there. Was there any specialty training for Chappie? Just having to go into areas that, like you said, are either crowded and noisy or some are out in the middle of nowhere. How does Chappie react to the different environments?

Robert Hess He does really well. So the Border Patrol initially purchased five dogs and trained five handlers. We all went out to California, and it was really more to train us. The dogs have already had extensive training from the time that they’re eight weeks old, they started getting trained as guide dogs for the blind. And all five of those dogs promoted to the Border Patrol and became support canines. So they received additional training on top of the training they received as guide dogs, extensive training. So from eight weeks old to, Chappie is two and a half years old, he’s been getting trained. And as far as translating that to the field, we’ve had some interesting moments where we learn stuff that we didn’t already know. Chappie doesn’t like clapping, so he’ll start barking. So that’s something we’re working on. But for the most part, he just goes with the flow. And the training that we received at our academy was very beneficial. They highlighted the need for for us, the handlers, to not get stressed out because the dogs are going to feel it through the leash. I believe it. The more relaxed I am and the more I trust him, the more relaxed he is and the more he’s able to do what he was trained to do. I’ve been in the Border Patrol for 23 years, will be 24 this summer. For those who struggle with this activation, this new pilot program, I say, you give it a chance. I’ve been an agent for 23 years and we’ve come a long way. I’ve heard, I probably shouldn’t read the comments and in some of the Facebook posts, but I do. And I struggle with those who say that the Border Patrol doesn’t care, because we have come a long, long way in that in that area. It used to be where it was just the Border Patrol we took care of. We’ve always taken care of one another. But now we’re seeing the agency take steps to make sure that that people are taken care of. And the biggest exam I’ve participated in a few police weeks, and that’s where it’s definitely magnified. If you’ve ever participated in that, you know just how much the Border Patrol takes care of its people in that venue. And it’s no different at the station and the sector levels. So I would just ask that give these these dogs a chance. There’s five of them now. There will be one in San Diego, will make a six dog. And I foresee them doing a lot of good. I’ve already seen hearts change with regard to this program, and I hope that continues.

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