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Officer Robert Sotelo introduces Cali, UC Davis’s first specialized therapy dog

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Officer Sotelo + Cali
UC Davis CORE Officer Robert Sotelo with Cali, a service dog who specializes in assisting with mental health and crises.

By Shreya Kumar, UC Davis

With her natural warmth, Cali is out to make friends for herself — and for the UC Davis Police Department.

At just 14 months old, the Labrador retriever is the newest and youngest member of the police department’s CORE, or Community Outreach and Engagement, Officer Program’s K-9 unit.

Her debut in September marked a new beginning for the police department’s K-9 unit and its contribution to a tiered response to policing on campus.

Cali, who specializes in assisting with mental health and crises, is the police department’s first specialized therapy dog for students, staff and faculty, and other campuses are following in her paw prints.

‘A boost of dopamine’

“She just brings a boost of dopamine to our campus,” said her canine handler and CORE Officer Robert Sotelo, who has been working with Cali since she was just 5 months old. “Being part of the community is really important to us, and Cali just seems to know how to bring out the best in people.”

The CORE program gives the UC Davis community an approachable way to interact with police officers as part of an effort to reimagine the way police presence on campus is perceived. Wearing casual uniforms or plain clothes, CORE officers assist with nonemergency issues by connecting and engaging with the community to provide necessary resources, like crime prevention, personal safety and mental health support. CORE officers are also on call to assist with non-imminent safety concerns such as depression and substance abuse.

Robert Sotelo with Cali

CORE Officer Robert Sotelo has been working with Cali since she was 5 months old.

“I want to be recognized as a police officer, but I also want people to feel safe when they see me,” Sotelo said about his work in the CORE program.

“We know we don’t need to escalate situations that are already highly stressful and instead focus on creating a sense of security on campus,” he added. “If we deal with a crisis incident that requires police intervention, Cali is great at creating a calm, welcoming space to keep tensions low so we can do our job more effectively.”

Trained as therapy dog

Cali’s position within the CORE program means she works very closely with the UC Davis community and interacts with students, staff and faculty the most out of any of the other dogs. Unlike the other canines who have been trained in explosives detection and other field work, Cali has been training to be a service animal since she was 8 weeks old and is now an American Kennel Club certified therapy dog. This makes her the most experienced of all the dogs in the police department when handling mental health crises, providing emotional support or educating the community on mental health awareness.

Sotelo and Cali have formed a strong bond over the months they’ve spent working together, and Cali accompanies Sotelo throughout his daily schedule as an integral part of her job. On a typical day, she joins Sotelo in the police department for a shift briefing in the morning, then walks over to the UC Davis Fire Department to have breakfast with them during their briefing.

Robert Sotelo with Cali

Officer Sotelo celebrates Cali’s first birthday. (Photo Robert Sotelo/UC Davis)

All in a day’s work

Cali often visits departments on campus that need a break from their hectic schedules and frequently meets with medical staff and social workers at the UC Davis Medical Center to be part of their self-care and critical-incident debriefs. In her free time, she  enjoys spending time with her family, playing fetch and, most recently, swimming.

Cali and Sotelo also go on daily walks throughout the campus and the arboretum, sometimes up to two or three times a day. She loves to make friends with anyone she passes by on these walks and provides cuddly companionship for anyone who stops to spend time with her.

During one such encounter, the pair were approached by a woman who asked if she could sit with Cali on a bench. Cali’s response was to be as comforting as possible, using her training to create a safe and welcoming space for the woman until she felt comfortable enough to share that she was currently grieving and greatly appreciated Cali’s comfort. “In over 20 years in my career, it was one of the most wholesome experiences I have ever been part of, “ Sotelo said.

Leader of the pack

Cali’s work on campus has been instrumental in starting therapy dog programs in police departments at other UC campuses. Inspired by Cali’s work at UC Davis, police departments at other UC campuses are making efforts to add specialized therapy dogs. Following in her paw prints, therapy dog programs are already in the works for police departments at UC Riverside, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz. Cali’s little sister Sandi joined the UC San Diego Police Department earlier this month.

“Cali is a major step in a progressive program to facilitate more care and attention to the needs of those we serve,” Sotelo said. “We are progressively reimaging the perception of law enforcement on our campus to better represent our community without sacrificing safety.”

Another dog’s best friend

Cali has also built a strong relationship with the older Labrador retriever in the CORE program’s K-9 unit, Charlie, who is a retired explosives detection dog. 

When she first joined the team, Cali liked to instigate playful fights with Charlie and would take his toys, drink from his water bowl and lay in his bed. Over time, they slowly built a familial relationship and are now delighted to see each other every morning.

Charlie and Cali in holiday garlands

Charlie and Cali spread holiday cheer with the UC Davis Police Department (Photo: UC Davis PD/UC Davis)

Charlie can often be found following Cali as she runs around the police station, and the two love to share toys and play together. According to Sotelo, Charlie’s older age helps to mellow out Cali’s personality, while Cali’s youthful energy keeps Charlie “spiritually youthful.”

The best way to learn more about Cali is to meet her in person. Follow her on Instagram @ucdpd_cali to keep up with her adventures and to invite her to locations and events to see her work firsthand.

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