Therapy dogs: The next step in enhancing firefighter wellness programs

Dogs have a long history helping firefighters; now they expand their role to offer physical and mental health benefits


Watch the on-demand webinar “Getting Started with First Responder Therapy Dogs,” presented by Captain Reed Norwood, Chief Neil Gang and Marie Ridgeway.

By Reed Norwood

The history of animals, especially canines, working side by side with our nation’s first responders is deep and storied.

As early as the mid-1700s, Dalmatians, the iconic fire dog, were an integral part of a fire company crew as they ran alongside the horse-drawn fire coaches, soothing the horses and protecting them from thieves. Police canines have been used in active police work for over 100 years to help apprehend criminals, with hounds being used to track the scent of criminals and potential victims. Other dogs are taught to locate avalanche victims and sniff out drugs, contraband and fire accelerant.

"If by having one therapy dog that points someone to help instead of the end of their career, then we are winning," writes Norwood. (Photo/Reed Norwood)

Although these dogs were all working breeds that had a specific job to do, they also brought something else to the table – companionship, plus a deeply therapeutic connection with their handlers. Those handlers knew it, and that’s why they love having dogs as partners.

Dogs continue to be key partners both in police work and in fire department operations – but their roles have grown in recent years. Specifically, some dogs are now trained to enhance the mental health and wellness of our first responders. Enter the first responder therapy dog.

Therapy dog or service dog?

Therapy dogs, as their name suggests, are trained and tempered to assist with providing therapeutic care to anyone and everyone who wants to pat their sweet heads. They are also very different from a certified service dog. Service animals are trained to perform a specific task or tasks for their handler, and their handler only. As such, therapy dogs are not covered under the same ADA protections as service dogs; therapy dogs must be invited into or allowed in a place of business.

Therapy dogs come in all breeds and sizes. They simply need to meet a few key characteristics:

  • Well-tempered around other people and dogs;
  • Calm demeanor; and
  • Must love being loved on.

There is obviously more to it than that, but a loving and calm dog is a great place to start.

The grind takes a toll

Why are therapy dogs so critical to consider? As a fire captain for a busy Denver-metro area fire department, I suffer from the same ailments as our brothers and sisters across the country. We work long and odd hours. Many of our nights conclude with little sleep. We unfortunately see people having their worst days and suffering their hardest times. Many lives are lost, some are saved, and the grind continues.

Our families support us, but they also feel the brunt of what we carry. Divorces and suicides are prevalent in our professions. We are quick to clam up to spare others the details of our strife.

This my friends, cannot continue.

Therapy dog uses and benefits

The good news is I truly feel that we as first responders are turning the corner and are focusing now more than ever on our mental health and wellness.

Step into any city firehouse and you’ll find a gym, some better than others, but a gym nonetheless. We are placing a greater emphasis on physical health and conditioning to be able to our job. What you don’t see in every fire house and police headquarters is a therapist’s couch or mental health professional’s contact information. Though the physical presence of mental wellness resources might not be as obvious to the eye as a gym, change is, in fact, coming.

Photo/Reed Norwood

One of the ways it is changing is by the introduction of therapy dogs in our fire stations, EMS centers and police departments. A study out of UCLA Health on therapy animals showed the following benefits of adding a therapy dog program:

  • Physical benefits: Lowered blood pressure, breathing slows in those who are anxious, release of hormones like phenylethylamine that regulates overall mood and can help with depression.
  • Mental benefits: Helps people relax and decompress, provides comfort, is a happy distraction. Petting animals also promoted the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. These hormones all play a part in elevating mood.

Beyond the science, what I can tell you anecdotally about having a therapy dog at my fire station is this: I just love having her there! She’s waiting for us when we get back from a call, she helps us break the ice with neighborhood kids that stop by the station, she recognizes who might need some attention and she’ll just go sit by them. Dogs and other therapy animals are acutely aware of what we are going through. They lift the mood around the station, and they can also be utilized to help other crews decompress after a particularly hard call. They are a living, breathing wellness resource that I just can’t even imagine not having around our fire department.

Enhancing mental health programs

More and more fire departments and police agencies across the country are starting to recognize that the mental health of their employees is paramount to their overall wellness, happiness and job satisfaction. Bringing in therapy dogs enhances this overall package of resources that agencies are starting to adopt.

We have finally gone beyond checking the EAP box and simply saying, “Sure, we offer mental health resources.” We are now looking at any and all options that will help our first responders reduce fatigue, get meaningful and restful sleep, become more resilient, develop more meaningful connections with their coworkers, talk about ways to manage their stressors, and talk about the things that may be taking them to a dark place. Gone is the machismo and ego. Well, maybe not totally gone, but it’s being shown the door. Some of the strongest fellow first responders I have met are the ones that stood up and asked for a helping hand.

Understand that this doesn’t happen by accident; this happens by taking the first step to introduce programs that target mental wellness. You don’t have to get it all right the first time, but you must try. And you can’t wait for a city manager, board member, police or fire chief to do it for you. It must be collaborative. By working together with your fellow first responders, your union officials and your administration, you can and will make things happen. You can make a difference in your life and that of your brother and sister firefighters.

If by having one therapy dog that points someone to help instead of the end of their career, then we are winning. Look out for each other and show them the compassion that you’d want for yourself. And if you’re not quite ready to talk, go find that therapy dog. They’ll sit with you right where you’re at.

About the Author

Reed Norwood is the Station 3 captain for West Metro Fire Rescue in Lakewood, Colorado. He also serves as the secretary/treasurer for IAFF Local 1309.

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