Therapy dogs visiting first responders

A police dispatcher had tears in her eyes and said, “You have no idea how much we needed this.”

A police officer said the department had been having a rough time lately, so he, too, said it was needed.

A firefighter who claimed to not be a dog person asked a lot of questions about a dog that was brought to the station and noticed how well behaved it was.

Another firefighter said he doesn’t have a dog at home, so he welcomed a visit by one.

It’s amazing what dogs can do for people.

Jane Hays with Seymour Mayor Matt Nicholson’s office recently reached out to Monica Rivera, owner of Dog Training with Monica in Seymour, about starting a K-9 therapy program, where therapy dogs would visit local police and fire stations.

Hays also reached out to Anne Poore, who runs Mercy Rescue & Adoption Inc. in North Vernon, and she jumped on board, too. Poore said Hays volunteers with the organization and knows her dogs, and Nicholson also has volunteered with the animal rescue in the past.

Rivera said she has taken dogs to nursing homes and schools and also had them around people with autism, but having them visit with first responders is a first.

So far, her blue heeler, Cookie Monster, has visited all three fire stations and the police station in Seymour, and Poole’s doodle mix, Gus, and Labrador, Gordie, have stopped by the police department.

“I just make sure that she tries to get to every person,” Rivera said of her 4-year-old certified therapy dog. “I’ve been working with her a long time. Usually, she’ll kind of pick certain people. I don’t know if it’s just energy she feels off of them or what, but she tends to stick by certain people after she has visited everybody. She’s very in tune with people’s feelings. She’s super focused, that’s for sure.”

Poole said her two dogs currently are in training and working toward different certifications. They both attend Dog World in Columbus for training and doggie day care.

“Gus, the youngest, is very friendly and overly loving. He is a doodle mix. He is about 10 months,” she said. “Gordie turns 1 this month and then can officially work toward his therapy visits and certification. You must be one year old and complete so many visits and pass different tests to gain certification. Gordie is a Labrador. He’s all business and loyal.”

During Cookie Monster’s first visit to the police station, she met employees in the dispatch and office areas.

“I just let her walk around. She went from person to person,” Rivera said. “After awhile, she ended up picking this one lady. She was sitting in the floor with her, and she got between her lap, and it just seemed to be soothing. She just petted her, and she just sat there and enjoyed it. Every few minutes, she’d go up and she’d check on somebody else and she’d circle. Usually, I just let her do her thing in an open space like that.”

One man there told Rivera it would be cool to have an in-house dog, and a woman told her she can come back every day.

“It definitely seemed to break up the tense topics of whatever they were working on,” Rivera said. “Everybody started talking about their own dogs and things that they liked about their dogs, what they do, dogs they used to have. They liked her tricks. I think it was kind of a mental break maybe from everything that they normally do.”

At one of the fire stations, the firefighter who wasn’t a dog person said if he had a dog as well behaved as Cookie Monster, he might get one.

When Cookie Monster was at Station 3, Lt. Jason O’Neal also noticed her good behavior.

“It’s a beautiful dog, and it’s a nice visit. I petted her, and she sat with me,” he said, noting his daughter has the same breed of dog. “I tell you, anyone who is looking for a dog, this could help them even decide. This is a smart breed here.”

O’Neal said when he received an email from Fire Chief Brad Lucas about the program, he initially thought the purpose was for the dog to get acclimated to going to different environments. He didn’t realize it was for the firefighters’ therapeutic benefit.

“Who doesn’t love dogs?” he said. “This is the first time I’ve been visited by a dog in my career (nearly 24 years). That being said, dogs are notorious for being associated with fire departments (particularly dalmatians). It’s almost like a missing piece is added into the scene.”

Firefighters can find themselves in stressful situations, so O’Neal sees this new program having several benefits.

“When someone has a rough day at home, what normally is their therapeutic go-to? It’s their pets,” he said. “This is our home. We’re one of the few careers that our job is our home, as well, and if you had a rough day or a moment, knowing that you have this resource, I’m sure I could call (Rivera) and say, ‘Hey, we need your dog here for a half-hour. Just leave it with us.’ She knows she could leave it and be OK with leaving it.”

Sheila Ortman, a clerk for SPD, said she loved when the dogs came by the police station. Along with Cookie Monster, Rivera brought Shannon O’Neal’s Labrador puppy, Trace.

As she sat on the floor with them, she said they were so well behaved.

“They don’t jump on you. They just kind of come over and sit next to you and lean in and hug you,” Ortman said. “They have been bringing in the training dog with the new dog, so it’s great to see the younger one trying to behave.”

She said it made her forget about everything that was going on for a few moments.

“It’s just pure love that they give,” Ortman said. “We keep trying to convince the chief that we need one at the office. I believe every office needs one. It’s amazing when you are stressed and a dog just walks over and nudges you. It’s like their way of saying, ‘Everything will be OK. Take a breath and relax a little.’”

Rivera said the program is important because it lets the first responders know they are not forgotten.

“We always go to hospitals and schools and the retirement homes and things like that. I wouldn’t have ever thought of (police and fire stations), but they have extremely stressful jobs,” she said. “At least you know people are thinking about them, trying to do something.”

Rivera and Poore will continue making visits throughout the year.

“We know the benefits of therapy work because we know what having dogs means to us,” Poore said. “They bring unconditional love and help people with stress and anxiety. Dogs are our life, and we want to share them with others.“