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An Akita named Spartacus helps Newtown’s kids to open up

Spartacus Chooch
and Brad Cole

We’ve all seen the photos and television images of the huge, cuddly “comfort dogs” that have played a key role in soothing the minds of the surviving victims -- and their families -- of recent shootings and assorted tragedies, most visibly the awful murders last December of 20 elementary school students and six adults in Newtown, CT.

What is perhaps less well known is that these dogs can often play a vital role “opening up” traumatized students and enabling them to begin talking about the horrific experiences they have recently survived. In that sense, these canines can more properly be thought of as “therapy dogs,” and they have taken on an important role in Newtown and elsewhere, as victims attempt to move on with their lives.

One of these therapy dogs, a huge, 120-pound American Akita formally named Spartacus Chooch (but more commonly called simply Spartacus) attended the ASIS NYC security conference on May 9 to demonstrate his customer-friendly attitude, along with his owner/trainer Brad Cole, of Southbury, CT. Cole, whose day job is as a private investigator in the while collar crime sector, told Government Security News that he has volunteered hundreds of hours leading Spartacus through his interactions with a wide range of students and their family members.

The key to the success of Spartacus -- and the half dozen other dogs that are still working with the kids in Newtown, about once-a-week -- is the fact that they don’t attempt to second-guess or lead the students in any specific direction. “The dogs are not confrontational,” said Cole, “and they don’t judge.”

The therapy dog trainers (like Cole) and the licensed counselors who have been brought in to work with the children -- particularly those that have been unable or unwilling to describe the events they lived through -- face a big challenge: how to get the kids to relax and go with their innate feelings.

“In some cases, the fact that I’m not a counselor actually helps,” said Cole. “I’m the guy who brought the dog!” Cole might pull out his cell phone and offer to show the kids photos of Spartacus when he was a puppy. In other cases, grammar school kids have been known to begin describing the horrific events of December 14 to Spartacus, where they couldn’t or wouldn’t say the same things to any of the adults.

Cole told GSN he took his therapy dog training in conjunction with an organization based in Flanders, NJ, known as Therapy Dogs International, and he frequently volunteers in the Level 1 trauma treatment area of Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Cole gave GSN his business card, as a private investigator, and a separate “business card” for Spartacus Chooch, which indicates the friendly dog was born on September 19, 2009, weighs 120 pounds, stands 5’ 4” tall and can be reached through his own Web address: http://about.me/spartacuschooch, where he introduces himself. “I am an Akita and therapy dog,” says Spartacus. “I volunteer weekly at a hospital. Dad & I visit with patients, family and staff. I love to hang out at the beach, play with kids & dogs and sit on the seawall. Mom, Dad & I travel often and explore new places.”

As one might imagine, kids everywhere fall in love with these enormous and enormously friendly dogs. In fact, Cole concluded, “Kids trade the dogs’ business cards like baseball cards.”