“I think she senses it — dogs can, right?” said Atlantic Beach Chief of Police Victor Gualillo of Station Dog C4. “You’re not having a good day, and they just want to be around you. They want to be a part of your next five minutes.”
C4, a therapy dog donated by K9s For Warriors to Atlantic Beach Police Department, has become the unofficial greeter to all those who enter the station’s doors. As soon as she sees a new face, her entire body lights up with anticipation. Her tail alone is a force of nature.
“You can tell she’s excited. Her whole body wiggles,” laughs Chief Gualillo.
For many Atlantic Beach Police first responders, she’s become a calm amongst the chaos.
“It’s kind of hard not to drop your guard just a little when C4 comes around. She has that unconditional ‘I love you. I’m happy to see you,’ said Chief Gualillo. “You have to reach down and pet her, and it changes you just a little.”
She's a Hero
It’s clear to see C4 has found her place amongst ABPD first responders. But before landing herself this job as a therapy dog, C4 held a different title.
She was a Service Dog for Doug, an Army veteran suffering from PTSD. Doug served 31 years in the Army as a command sergeant major, deploying to Afghanistan. Doug also served a career in law enforcement, dedicating 27 years to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
Upon Doug’s discharge and return to the states, he immediately submitted his retirement to the highway patrol.
“I didn’t want anything to do with carrying a gun, being responsible for people, being around the public,” Doug said.
He began struggling with feelings of anger, resentment, and guilt. He started going out less and less, closing himself off to others — even his wife.
For a moment, Doug even contemplated suicide.
Everything changed when he met a yellow lab named C4.
“It was an instant connection,” Doug said of the day he met his Service Dog.
The duo was paired in October of 2017, and C4 started making an immediate difference in Doug’s life. He felt at ease for the first time in what felt like forever.
“C4 is a companion,” he said. “Even when I’m standing to buy movie tickets in a theater, she’s got my back. She’s a soldier, and she’s a hero.”
After years of reclusion and locking himself away from the outside world, he slowly began to feel like himself again.
He even reached out to volunteer at a local veterans organization — with C4 by his side, of course. He’s always been passionate about serving his community, and C4 seemed to feel the same.
“The room was full of veterans,” Doug remembered. “You can always tell when your dog wants to ‘make a friend.’ She sure did make a lot of friends.”
“She not only changed my life but the lives of the veterans I was trying to help,” Doug said.
Doug and C4 enjoyed four years by each other’s sides before Doug’s life took a turn.
“I had a lot of injuries from Afghanistan, and I started having surgery after surgery,” he said.
He was in and out of the hospital, undergoing knee replacements and attending countless therapy visits. Suddenly, his wife was the one tossing C4 her favorite frisbee and taking her on her daily walks.
“I could see her taking on the role of a pet,” said Doug sadly. “But I knew she had a lot of service left in her.”
He contacted K9s For Warriors, unsure of what to do.
“They told me I should keep her as a pet if I wanted to,” Doug said. “But I know, with all of the training and care, I didn’t want her to be a pet.”
Service Dog to Station Dog
That’s when they told him about the K9s For Warriors Station Dog Program. The Station Dog Program trains retired and repurposed Service Dogs to become therapy dogs for first responders.
With 27 years in law enforcement, Doug knew firsthand the impact a lifetime in the field could make on a first responder. He was quick to accept C4’s offer into the program.
“You deal with the public on good terms and bad terms,” He said of law enforcement. “Those bad terms add up, and they can take a toll.”
Atlantic Beach Chief of Police Gualillo has seen the effects on his own officers.
“We know that PTSD is cumulative,” he said. “In law enforcement, we have a lot of small events that add up. We have calls day in and day out and adrenaline dumps that we give repeatedly — whether it’s a traffic stop or going to a high-priority call.”
Recently, Atlantic Beach PD took on a more proactive, holistic wellness approach for their officers in order to combat PTSD before it reaches a tipping point. This opened the door to K9s For Warriors and the Station Dog Program.
For veteran Doug, the decision to pass the leash to Atlantic Beach PD came with many mixed feelings. In November of 2020, he packed up C4’s things, including a heartfelt letter written to her new handler, and he said a tearful goodbye. He knew he was making the right choice.
“It was the hardest thing to do,” he said. “But I know she’s doing good things. It’s a comfort for those men and women — for her to welcome them back to the station and love on them.”
Chief Gualillo couldn’t agree more.
“It’s kind of hard not to drop your guard just a little when C4 comes around,” Chief Gualillo said.
He said that moment of peace and quiet is crucial for first responders amongst the hustle and bustle.
“If we can get people to stop for a moment, pet the dog, take a deep breath, do nothing for a few seconds — make her happy and scratch her ears — it takes your mind off everything else for a few seconds,” Chief Gualillo said.
C4 has not only made an impact on first responders who work in the field. She also visits the ABPD communication center, where operators accept calls and dispatch officers and first responders to emergencies.
“Our emergency communications operators handle some very stressful incidents when there is no one else around,” said Chief Gualillo. “The difference is those operators don’t get closure.”
They don’t know what happens at the scene, and they don’t know the outcome of the incident.
“That stress from not having closure is a difficult thing for the operators, so having C4 around for them once that call disconnects is a positive benefit for them.”
C4's Daily Routine
C4 has found her new normal with Atlantic Beach PD. She typically wakes up around 5 a.m. and goes for a walk with one of the first administrative workers to arrive at the station. She then spends the morning greeting everyone to enter the station.
“She enjoys people, so we like to give her a lot of new people to meet,” Chief Gualillo said.
She takes routine field trips to City Hall and to the park, making new connections with the community.
Everywhere she goes, C4 attracts attention, giving Atlantic Beach PD the opportunity to interact with the community on a new, unique level.
“Usually when someone calls the cops, it’s not because something good happens,” Chief Gualillo said.
C4 has opened the door to limitless positive interactions with the public.
She also occasionally serves as comfort to witnesses and victims during police interviews.
“Talking to an officer about something bad that happened isn’t easy, so offering C4 in that situation is great emotional support,” said Chief Gualillo.
Veteran Doug enthusiastically follows C4’s journey on the Atlantic Beach PD’s Facebook page, watching from afar as she does the job he knew she was meant for.
“I’m just thankful for a program like this,” Doug said. “I’m sure those officers didn’t know what a Service Dog could do for them until they got to C4. They may not know they needed one.”
Despite C4’s physical absence, he still feels her presence with him always. He’s no longer living a life of isolation and solitude.
“She gave me a sense of responsibility again,” Doug said. “Even though she’s gone now, my social life is still there.”
Even without C4 by his side, he said he still feels healed.
“I’m whole again.”