The winner of the 2023 First Responder Paws Therapy Dog Award is an incredible, two-and-a-half-year-old super mutt named “Sergeant Bo.” In a recent interview with Sgt. Bo’s handler, Officer Faye Okert with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, we heard more of Sgt. Bo’s remarkable story, from his days as a stray roaming Florida’s Indialantic Beach to his call to respond to the Covenant School shooting in Nashville…..
A Rescue Dog in Training
No one knows how long Sgt. Bo was on the streets before he was rescued or where he came from. In September 2022, a kind citizen found him roaming the Indialantic Beach and took him to Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Animal Services, where he was put up for adoption in their shelter.
Like a lot of dogs that end up at the shelter, Sgt. Bo was not adopted. Lucky for him, though, the Brevard County Sherriff’s Office has a program known as “Paws and Stripes College,” which selects dogs with “the right temperament and aptitude” to become therapy dogs for police departments, Officer Okert said. The dogs are then trained by inmates, with oversight from dog trainers employed by the Sheriff’s Office.
“The Paws and Stripes program gives dogs a second chance, and the opportunity to have a purpose as a working dog,” Officer Okert said. “The program helps the inmates learn skills and gives them something to care for while they are incarcerated.”
How Sgt. Bo First Met His Handler
The Paws and Stripes program is also where Sgt. Bo met Officer Okert, who was in the process of acquiring her very first therapy dog as a new handler. Here is how she recalled that unforgettable moment:
I met [Sgt. Bo] at the very end of the first day of training at Paws and Stripes. It was a long eight hours before I finally got to see him in person and interact with him. I had seen photos and a video the week before of the inmates working with him. The date I met him was December 12, 2022. Even though I didn’t know at the time, meeting Sgt Bo would change my life and my career of 33 years.
Deployment to the Covenant School Shooting
After completing his training, Sgt. Bo began work with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department serving area schools. He was just three months into his new job when he and Officer Okert were summoned to the scene of the shooting at the Covenant School.
“I was on my way to visit a middle school on the west side of Nashville when I heard the call dispatched on the police radio and soon saw a ton of MNPD vehicles with lights and sirens on their way as they responded,” Officer Okert said. She continued, remembering the events of that day:
I immediately received a phone call from a supervisor asking me to head to the reunification point with Sgt. Bo to stand by for the children who would eventually be arriving. While we had been on many deployments in the three short months we had worked together up to this point, I knew this was going to be one of the most emotional calls we would ever respond to. I immediately thought of my two grandkids and wanted nothing more than to be able to protect and comfort the children of Covenant just as I would want my grandkids to be comforted if they were in a similar situation.
Looking back, Officer Okert said it was Sgt. Bo who helped her stay calm as they provided on-the-ground support to victims of the tragedy:
While the horrific tragedy that the survivors had just experienced was earth-shattering and devastatingly heartbreaking, I leaned on Sgt. Bo during that time to keep my emotions at bay to be a calming presence for the children during the period of uncertainty as they waited to be reunited with their families. The work that Sgt. Bo did in providing a sense of comfort and security to those who couldn’t otherwise make sense of the moment was something I, myself, as an officer, could not have provided.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when the children were transported on school buses to a church where they were to be reunited with their families, Sgt. Bo and Officer Okert were there at the church to greet the children on each of the buses and “let them know what was happening to get them reunited with their parents and make them feel safe.”
“Then we stayed with the children until all were reunited,” Officer Okert said. “We stayed until the last staff member left.”
The day of the shooting, while they were with the children, Officer Okert gave out trading cards, with Sgt. Bo’s information and pics, and “the kids hung on to them.”
The trading cards were a hit.
“When the kids returned to school, a lot of parents told me how excited their child was to show them Sgt Bo’s card when they were finally able to reunite with them,” Officer Okert said. “A lot of the parents later shared with me that the first thing their child said and did after being reunited was tell them about Sgt. Bo and show them the trading card.”
Apparently, “students at Covenant still ask for the cards, even though some of the children have several.”
After learning that Sgt. Bo had won the 2023 First Responder Paws Award, a parent from the Covenant School wrote this letter to Officer Okert:
I am one of the Covenant dads and wanted to say how happy I am that Bo won the contest! He was part of our March 27 story that I’ll never forget. When we heard what was going on we threw our daughter in the car and rushed towards the school. (She also goes to TCS but not on Mondays). Once we got to the reunification center, we quickly realized it was probably a bad idea to have brought her (but for obvious reasons weren’t making clear decisions then). Our sweet neighbor ended up driving over to pick her up while we waited for our son, and as we were walking her out to their car, we met Bo. She spent a few minutes petting him, and it was one small positive memory that we were able to put into that horrific day. As time has passed, we have found ourselves looking for those positive moments more and more, and I just wanted to thank you for being there that day. We are beyond thankful for you, Bo, and all the days since that y’all have been at the school to love on our kids. To this day I still have his card sitting on my office desk. Thank you for serving and loving our community so well.
The Title of “Therapy Dog Excellent”
Sgt. Bo and Officer Okert continue to visit the Covenant School at least once a week and have become part of the community. They also visit other area schools. Sgt. Bo helps students practice their reading by lying next to them and providing a non-judgmental, listening presence as they read. He and Officer Okert “make a lot of classroom visits at different schools and teach classes about a variety of safety topics.”therapy dog in January 2023, Sgt. Bo has made more than 285 visits and deployments. That has earned him the title of “Therapy Dog Excellent” (for at least 200 visits) from the American Kennel Club. (Before that, Sgt. Bo obtained three other titles from the AKC: “Therapy Dog Novice” for 10 visits, “Therapy Dog” for 50 visits, and “Therapy Dog Advanced” for 100 visits.)
What It’s Like to Be Sgt. Bo’s Handler
We asked Officer Okert what it’s like to be Sgt. Bo’s handler—could she describe their relationship? She joked that in addition to being his work partner, she is also his “Uber driver, personal assistant, and photographer.” She continued:
I have had lots of dogs throughout my life and loved each one of them in a unique way. However, being the handler of a working dog is entirely different than being the owner of my pet dogs. I spend more time with Sgt. Bo than I do my own family. The bond we have formed through our working relationship is stronger than anyone could have explained to me. He feeds off my energy and knows if I’m having an off day. I know what he is feeling as well. I am his voice and his biggest fan. His therapy work isn’t just limited to what he does in schools. Sgt. Bo is not just my partner; he is my reason for going to work each day. Getting to see the huge impact he has had on people has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and increased my level of confidence.
The Life-Changing Impact of Working with Sgt. Bo
To say that working with Sgt. Bo has been life-changing for Officer Okert is no exaggeration:
I have been a police officer for 33 years. I have seen more smiles in this year with Sgt. Bo than in my entire career. I get to be his partner and see the happiness he brings to people. With Sgt Bo as my partner, it’s hard to have a bad day because he is always with me. I get to see how children light up when they see him, and I am just lucky to be on the other end of his leash.
Children need positive interactions with police, and now Sgt. Bo helps bridge that gap. Some children that may be fearful or shy away from an officer in uniform are now more likely to approach other officers after they have had a positive interaction from meeting Sgt Bo.
Life Lessons from Sgt. Bo
What life lessons has Sgt. Bo taught Officer Okert? First, “it never hurts to share an idea that you have and ask for something,” she said. “By that, I mean that I had the idea to become a therapy dog handler and decided to ask my lieutenant, who helped write a proposal to get a therapy dog for the school safety division of our department.” The proposal was approved. “The rest is history … and the first year has been unbelievable.”
The second lesson is “don’t judge a book by its cover, because you might miss out on a good friend, or in my case the perfect dog.” Upon first impression, Sgt. Bo did not look like what Officer Okert expected a therapy dog to look like, and that raised concerns. She worried about what coworkers might think, given her perceptions of Sgt. Bo’s scruffy appearance. (An Embark DNA test found that Sgt. Bo is 45 percent American Pit Bull Terrier, 18 percent Staffordshire Terrier, 16 percent Golden Retriever, 10 percent Poodle, and eight percent “super mutt.”) Now, when people ask what kind of dog Sgt. Bo is, Officer Okert answers that he is “100% Good Boy.”)
Officer Okert was a bit fearful, prior to making the 12-hour drive down to Florida to meet Sgt. Bo and train with him, about whether she was making the right decision. In hindsight, though, she said she is so glad she didn’t arrange to swap dogs before that trip: “It was meant for Sgt. Bo to be in Nashville and for him to be my partner. I often share this message with kids, not to judge a book by its cover.”
Sgt. Bo’s Message if He Could Speak
If Sgt. Bo could speak, what message would he want to share? “You don’t have to be a purebred to be a great therapy dog. Mixed breeds can sometimes make the best therapy dogs due to their unique looks that draw attention and curiosity,” Officer Okert said. “Shelter dogs are often overlooked due to their situation, appearance, and/or breed. If I had gone with my gut feelings and initial response in wanting to swap dogs, I would have missed a ‘diamond in the ruff.’”
Finally, “Never give up. You may have a rough start in life, but when you get your chance, make it count and shine bright.”