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The Labrador Retriever with a Tiger-Sized Heart

Meet “Coach,” Princeton University’s Therapy Dog, and Her Devoted Handler

By Taylor Smith | Photo by Puppies Behind Bars 

Sgt. Alvan Flanders has worked in the Department of Public Safety (DPS) at Princeton University for over 25 years, which spans his entire law enforcement career. “I love it here. I love the town, I love Princeton,” he said.

Typically, the role of the DPS is to police the campus, aiding in general security and supporting the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff alike. At times, the DPS has developed mixed reviews and reactions from college students who see them as strictly law enforcers, but the introduction of a therapy dog named Coach has changed all of that.

A black female Labrador retriever with a shiny coat and sparkling eyes, Coach was “matched” with Flanders through a rigorous program he attended at Puppies Behind Bars ( Flanders learned of Puppies Behind Bars through a contact at Yale University, which also incorporated a therapy dog into their on-campus DPS services.

Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), based in New York City, was founded in 1997 at the Bedford Hills Women’s Prison to raise and train service dogs for aid in law enforcement. The program gradually expanded into training dogs for other lines of service such as veterans suffering from PTSD, first responders, therapy dogs for police departments, and an explosive-detection canine program. The first service dog paired with an Iraq War veteran took place in February 2008.

Photo by Jenna Kardasz (JennaKPhotos)

According to PBB’s website, a dog has at least 10,000 hours of training before it is paired with a permanent handler. During this time, it is exposed to a variety of stressors and situations that are meant to equip the dog for whatever purpose lays in store. Also, since the lab puppies are raised by prison inmates, they are emotionally attuned to those who are in sensitive or vulnerable situations. In this way, PBB-trained dogs can pick up on extremely subtle body cues and body language in a way that most typical dogs cannot.

Labrador retrievers are chosen as therapy dogs for their intelligence, adaptability, and agreeable nature. The dogs enter the prison at the age of 8 weeks and are immediately put under the care of a specific inmate for 24 months. As the puppies mature and prepare to be “matched” with a service member, the inmates will go onto instruct the officers as to how to communicate and interact with the labs.

Clearly, the PBB training experience struck an impactful chord with Flanders. “In all my 25-plus years in the law enforcement field, I have never been so emotionally touched as when I participated in this program at the women’s prison,” he said. “I thought to myself, these women are behind bars because of a felony that I could have arrested them for and here they are carefully showing me how to instruct and build a bond with these well-behaved dogs. I will never forget it.”

Flanders was not immediately matched with Coach. “We would rotate with different dogs on different days,” he said. “I probably only spent a short amount of time with Coach initially. I would be with Rex for half a day and then another dog later on. All the dogs were beautiful, and I had no preference as to male or female. I was just happy to be there.”

When Flanders learned he was matched with Coach, he was undeniably excited. “One of the first things they told us after we got matched with our dogs is to let the animals sleep in our bed when we got back to the hotel,” he said. “They were never allowed to do that in prison because the women sleep in cells and the dogs would sleep in a crate or cage. Letting them sleep in your bed is a signal to the dog that this is your partner, your chosen person.”

Flanders noted that Coach seemed like a natural fit with the Princeton University campus. “She looks like she belongs with her shiny black hair and pretty eyes. She wears an orange collar,” he said.

When Coach is not working, she lives off-campus with Flanders and his family. “I’ve always been an animal lover,” he said.

Two of Flanders’ daughters run Coach’s Instagram account, @CoachatPrinceton. “I have four girls and they know all the latest stuff about social media,” he said.

Although Flanders’ daily schedule with Coach is very busy, his daughters are always keen to remind their dad to take lots of photos.

In fact, Flanders said that Coach’s Instagram is a great way to get in touch with them. “We get requests from students through Instagram, asking that Coach make a special appearance. We had a girl ask Coach to surprise her boyfriend for his birthday,” said Flanders.

Coach has impacted student life in many ways. “Since Coach started at Princeton [in August 2021], she’s been put in positions that she was not necessarily trained for, but she has really shined,” said Flanders.

One incident involved a school health professional who contacted Flanders and asked if he could bring Coach to meet a student who was suffering from emotional distress. “I didn’t know what to expect,” admitted Flanders.

The pair were greeted by a student sitting on the floor, crying, and clearly upset. Flanders decided to unleash Coach to see what she would do. Amazingly, Coach calmly sauntered over to the student and sat right next to them, allowing the student to pet her gently for over an hour. As time passed, the room calmed and the situation rapidly improved.

Another unexpected student interaction that came at the beginning of Coach’s career at Princeton occurred on freshman move-in day.

“This freshman was moving into his dorm room, and he ran over to Coach and said to me, ‘this made my day!’ I couldn’t believe it because here was this young person who had worked so hard to get into Princeton, this prestigious University, and they said I made their day? The potential impact that Coach could have on this campus community — it struck me as amazing.”

Even though Coach is now a regular on campus, Flanders never knows quite what to expect. Each workday brings new surprises and changes. Coach has attended sporting events, lawn parties, and has had countless individual and group interactions. “My hour walks inevitably turn into hour-and-45-minute walks because so many people just want to stop and pet her or take a photo,” he said.

In this way, Coach has positively impacted the way that the on-campus community perceives the DPS. In a world in which police officers and law enforcement in general can face a lot of harsh criticism for knee jerk reactions or misjudgments, Coach has softened that perception. While she is not a bomb or drug sniffing dog, she is just as highly trained and attentive in the ways of human emotion.

“She alleviates and improves the officers’ mental health,” said Flanders. “Although we’re talking about Princeton, New Jersey, and not the NYPD, Princeton officers see a lot of difficult things too.”

Coach’s first Reunions celebration in May 2022 was a smashing success. Flanders admitted he had to do a lot of explaining to the returning students as to what Coach actually does on campus, but the two were always greeted with smiles.

“I met a couple from the Class of 1962 (60th Reunion) walking around campus Thursday night,” said Flanders. “On Friday night they requested that Coach and I stop by to meet their classmates. When Coach and I arrived, they made an announcement to the class, and we walked around and greeted the class members. Countless class members and families approached to meet Coach and to take photos.”

Flanders continued, “At Class Day, parents thanked me and mentioned how their kids [often] miss their family pets, and Coach often would be a substitute for that.”

While there were numerous social opportunities this past spring on campus, Coach had to pick and choose her events wisely. As Flanders kindly put it, “they’re extremely long days.”

It is inevitable that Coach’s on-campus presence will continue to grow and evolve over time. With an endless amount of love, empathy, and stoicism to give, who couldn’t use a little Coach in their lives?

For those visiting from out of town, keep your eyes peeled for her orange collar and thick, wagging tale making its way down Nassau Street and the surrounding campus.

For current students that would like to schedule a date or visit with Coach, the best way is to reach out via Instagram or to contact the DPS. Just don’t demand too much of her time. Even superheroes need to rest!