With mental health awareness on the rise among first responders, members of this tight-knit community and their advocates are faced with the need to establish measures to help them manage the emotional and physical stresses of the job. It isn’t a secret that many first responders struggle with PTSD, but many of them are either reticent about it or they simply don’t have the resources available to receive help.
American Medical Response (AMR), a U.S. medical transportation company, aims to provide one of those resources for the people who serve our communities every day. By bringing in professionally-trained therapy dogs, AMR seems to have struck the happy medium for first responders who feel uncomfortable revealing their struggles to strangers—because who doesn’t love playing with a happy dog? Comfort dogs have shown time and again how they can drastically relieve the stress of burnt-out providers.
The AMR Therapy Dog pilot program began in 2016 when Lauren Christie, project coordinator at AMR Amarillo Medical Services, heard about therapy dog teams traveling to Orlando after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting that left 49 people dead and dozens injured. They provided comfort for the first responders on scene as well as the victims’ families.
“I just thought that was a really neat idea because first responders are often forgotten, but they see and experience a lot, too,” says Christie. So, she proposed the idea to AMR. Considering its sizeable presence with agencies located in nearly 2,000 communities in the U.S., the services could potentially reach thousands of first responders in need.
When AMR gave her the green light, she began researching ideal dog breeds. Goldendoodles, which are a cross between golden retrievers and poodles, checked out among the top choices. They’re hypoallergenic (meaning they don’t shed and won’t affect people with dog allergies), intelligent, family-oriented, and get along well with children and the elderly.
Saydee was the first puppy to be initiated into AMR’s program. Christie purchased her in August of 2016, enrolled her in a 12-month training program, and got her certified through a San Diego-based therapy dog organization, Love On A Leash. Saydee and Bodhi, the second dog who was purchased by Robert Saunders, AMR Regional Director of Amarillo, Temple, Waco Abilene, Wichita Falls, and Ellis/Johnson/Milam Counties, are in the Amarillo Office 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. They’re mostly available for the crews during their shifts but can also serve other agencies by request, particularly after mass casualty incidents.
The mass shooting that occurred during the 2017 Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, Nev. was one of those incidents that the team was requested to attend for the debriefing process.
“Some of the people that wouldn't really open up to the CISM team started opening up as they were petting the dog,” says Saunders. “They started thinking about what they had seen and started concentrating on the dogs and talking.”
Saunders says their South Region CEO and national chief medical officer were present for the debriefing, “and once they saw it, it was done. They bought into it 100%” realizing the impact it had on the first responders. Since then, the dogs have attended three other incidents to provide stress relief for EMS personnel, firefighters, and police officers. The program is slowly but efficiently growing—with Saydee having had a litter recently, more puppies are on their way to training. They sent three of them to other AMR locations in the country where they are all currently in training and will be certified May 2019.
While other agencies can request a visit from AMR’s therapy dogs, if they’re interested in starting up their own program, it’s important to recognize that it demands time and dedication.
“Study. Make sure you find the right dog,” says Saunders. Hypoallergenic dogs make for less cleaning and ones with easygoing temperaments ensure positive interactions with people. “If you pick the wrong dog, it might not come to fruition.” Placing a therapy dog vest on a dog without proper training could possibly result in adverse encounters and bring bad press to the associated agency.
Finding the right trainers for the dogs are just as important. “The handler has to be available to go to different places at two in the morning if there is a bad call,” Saunders says. “If they only work 8 to 5, then they have to get up and go where they are needed.”
The program requires financial investment, too. Between training, food, and visits to the vet, costs can reach upward of $5,000 in the first year, says Saunders. However, the investment will be well-worth making when providers can alleviate their stress through some playtime with the dogs.
“I think if it is done correctly and responsibly, it will be a great thing,” Saunders says.
If your agency is seeking assistance from the AMR Therapy Dog team or has questions about the program, contact Lauren Christie at firstname.lastname@example.org. or email@example.com.
Lauren Christie is the AMR Project Coordinator of Texas and has been with AMR for 8 years. She is Saydee’s owner/handler and a leader on the AMR Therapy Dog Team Board.
Robert Saunders is the Regional Director of Texas 911 and has been with AMR for 9 years. He is Bodhi’s owner/handler and a leader on the AMR Therapy Dog Team Board.