Therapy dogs provide stress relief for local first responding agencies
Oakland, a 3-year-old golden retriever, bounded over to Port Huron firefighter Cody Gordon at Central Station Thursday, his leather leash held in his mouth. Smiling, Gordon reached out down to pet the dog's long, soft fur.
Ferris, a 6-year-old golden retriever, went from firefighter to firefighter, a red vest strapped to his back.
"They just brighten up your day," Port Huron Fire Capt. Chris Shattuck said. "I'm a dog person, so I like dogs."
Deborah Forster, the dogs' handler, has been volunteering with local therapy dog group Blue Water Love on a Leash for the past roughly five years. She was serving in Oxford following the shooting at Oxford High School on Nov. 30 that left four students dead and several injured when she realized that first responders could benefit from therapy dogs too.
Forster has been visiting local first responding agencies, including Tri-Hospital EMS, the Port Huron Fire Department and Marysville Public Safety, since May with her dogs, and plans to visit the St. Clair County Sheriff Department soon.
The first time she visited Tri-Hospital EMS, Forster said a worker exited the ambulance and immediately fell to their knees to pet her dog. They said really needed that on that day.
"(First responders) see a lot of trauma and they need some smiles in their day too," Forster said.
Trish May, operations manager at Tri-Hospital EMS, said it's nice to get to know the dogs over several visits and get a break from the job.
"It's nice to be able to see and touch and pet something that is excited to see you," May said.
Forster's dogs are certified through First Responder Therapy Dogs, a national nonprofit that began in San Rafael, California, as a way to address first responders' mental health needs.
Executive Director Heidi Carman said she saw the need for mental health support for first responders while taking her dog, Kerith, to local hospitals and fire stations at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She formed the nonprofit after taking Kerith to base camps for firefighters battling devastating wildfires in California in August 2020.
"It's all about helping (first responders) feel less stressed in a very stressful job," Carman said.
To get certified, dogs must pass the American Kennel Club's K9 good citizens test and a behavioral assessment to ensure dogs will not be frightened by common sights and sounds in first responding agencies, such as fire trucks, sirens, emergency lights or employees in uniform, Carman said.
She said the handlers also take courses to help them understand behavioral health and the trauma first responders experience as a part of their careers.
The nonprofit has certified 70 teams in 14 states, according to their website. Teams visit fire stations, police departments, EMS departments and central dispatch stations; attend debriefing/defusing sessions following difficult calls; and visit basecamps at wildfires.
Forster said she would like to see more therapy dog teams in the Blue Water Area, so that more services can be offered to first responders and trauma victims, such as visits to stations, scenes or hospitals during traumatic events.
Contact Laura Fitzgerald at (810) 941-7072 or [email protected].