The 2021 fire season has been a rough one for Wilderdog here in Northern California. We had a heightened awareness of wildfires after the Tamarack Fire, and then the Caldor Fire forced us to evacuate our homes. We have unending gratitude to the incredible first responders who saved our community - fire fighters, police officers, aircraft operators, utility workers, paramedics, and everyone else who worked their tails off.
We also learned about another type of first responder, one with four paws and a tail, and they are First Responder Therapy Dogs (FRTD)! First Responder Therapy Dogs provide emotional support to first responders at wildfire base camps, police and fire stations, 911 call dispatches, debriefings after a traumatic incident, and more. The dogs are there simply to give love and get pets.
"Being on the front lines is physically and mentally challenging, and these everyday heroes often feel under-supported, overwhelmed, and under-appreciated," explains FRTD. They are committed to providing emotional support, reducing stress and anxiety, and giving some sense of normalcy to these incredibly demanding and long days these responders often have.
We chatted with Heidi Carman, founder of First Responder Therapy Dogs. Heidi had previously raised guide dogs for the blind. Her fifth (and current) dog, Kerith, was 14 months old when she realized she didn't have what it took to be a seeing eye dog. Kerith was going to be a pet, but Heidi knew there was something special about this pup.
Heidi started training Kerith to be a therapy dog instead. They first volunteered in the ER, and became familiar with the paramedics and firefighters. When the pair started doing nearby fire station visits, Heidi realized how much Kerith was helping the firefighters. The community police station heard about Heidi and Kerith, and they requested a visit as well. It was obvious that there was a need in the first responder world. In January of 2021, Heidi officially formed the nonprofit First Responder Therapy Dogs.
As of now, October 2021, First Responder Therapy Dogs has 16 teams across 6 states, with many more dogs working on their certification.
To become a certified FRTD, dogs must be a certified general therapy dog, as well as be extremely comfortable in all sorts of emergency situations, at base camps, in hospitals, police and fire stations. They must be calm and relaxed around constant loud noises like sirens and engines, and can't be spooked with crowds and uniforms. Of course, pups must have excellent obedience and must love people and pets. Certified therapy dogs must be at least 18 months old, but for most therapy dogs, training begins at 8 weeks old.
For a human to be certified as a handler, one must go through a number of courses, including First Responder, FEMA and International Association of Fire Fighter (IAFF) courses.
We asked Heidi what her best day as a handler for a FRTD was, and she replied that while the work isn't generally too happy, she loves seeing Kerith make a first responder feel happy for a moment. They're usually stressed, overworked, and missing their families and their own dogs.
One moment stood out to Heidi at the Caldor base camp here in Tahoe. Heidi and Kerith were walking around the engines and a firefighter left his crew to approach the pair. He told them he had to put down his own dog just two weeks ago. The man crumpled down, buried his head into Kerith's fur, and cried. Heidi let them have their moment. After a few minutes, he stood up, wiped his tears and said 'thank you' before walking away. The firefighter hadn't had the time to grieve the loss of his best friend before being called to the fire.
Heidi said firefighters often tell her that their dogs are going to be jealous when they get home and the dogs can smell Kerith on them. Both Heidi and the firefighters know that the pungent smell of fire is embedded in their clothes, in their hair, in the trucks, and it is strong; there is no way their pups at home will smell another dog. But it's feeling that brief moment of normalcy for the firefighters that reminds them of their families and life at home, on the other side of the long days fighting the fire.
Kerith is a Golden Retreiver, as are many other therapy dogs. Heidi says she sees lots of doodles, labs, and border collies, but there are no breed restrictions. And she'd love to see some rescue dogs in the field! The only requirement is that dogs must pass the the certifications.
To learn more about First Responder Therapy Dogs, or if you think your pup has what it takes, give them a visit - https://firstrespondertherapydogs.org.