If you follow me, you know that I’ve been looking at the role of dogs in critical incident and trauma responses. A couple of years ago, while working for CAL FIRE at the big Lake County fires, I noticed, as did the rest of the peer support team, that dogs are excellent
icebreakers. The fact is that few firefighters will stop and talk to peer support ordinarily – but that changes when dogs are involved. Nobody judges when you play with a dog.
As I wrote last month, we invited many dog teams (a team is a dog and handler) to Santa Rosa during the North Bay fires in October. They certainly proved their worth. We could see people relax and open up while petting or playing with the K9s. A couple of weeks ago, one of the line supervisors, Bill B., told me how he had been doing paperwork in camp, exhausted and cranky, when he saw a dog team approaching. Go away, he thought. I’m too busy. But the team – Michael Jacobs and Molly from Hope AACR – came over to him.
A minute or later, Bill said, he was relaxed and grateful that they stopped by. That’s the kind of story we want to hear!
Last Thursday, I spent the day visiting Las Vegas Fire and Rescue stations with Brad Cole, the founder of Connecticut-based K9 First Responders (KFR), and his trauma dog, Spartacus. Brad and Spartacus, along with other KFR teams, were deployed to the October 1st mass shootings. KFR has also responded to Newtown for the Sandy Hook shootings and many other crises.
We can learn a lot from dogs about crisis response. They are quite sensitive to our emotions. Recent research demonstrates how well they can read us. Many dogs instinctively go to a person in distress – Brad, others and I have seen this happen many times. It happens in my home, too – when I get frustrated, usually by a computer – Kairo, our Maltese, often comes running to me.
In other words, the first thing we teach in crisis intervention – to acknowledge emotions – comes naturally to dogs. Equally important, they don’t do things many of us, especially in public safety, have a hard time resisting – they don’t give advice, try to “fix” the person or make it better. They are simply present. The fact that they can’t do anything makes dogs non-threatening; safe to be with.
Dogs don’t understand what happened, but they don’t need to. They just know when we are hurting. They show us that it isn’t necessary to understand what happened. Perhaps responders can tell family and friends that the best way to support them is to act like a dog – just be present.
The helpfulness of animals for emotionally distressed people is being researched – primarily horses and dogs, but also dolphins and even cats, despite their aloofness. Eye contact and touch play big roles in helping our nervous systems calm down. Dogs and horses are sensitive to danger, so when they are calm, we know we are safe.
A 2015 literature review of research on animal-assisted intervention concluded that although research is still in early stages, “All reported positive outcomes” for traumatized people. Studies showed reduced depression and reduced PTSD symptoms.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, after seeing how effective dogs are, we are increasing our collaboration and integration of K9 teams in crisis response.