For decades, dogs have been a proven therapeutic resource for individuals needing affection, comfort and support, as their presence improves overall physical and mental health. Traditionally, therapy dogs have provided services in settings such as hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, libraries, hospices and disaster areas.
In 2020, Marin County resident Heidi Carman wanted to try something new. She saw a void and wanted to see if she could fill it. Carman knew that many first responders suffer mental health challenges from being constantly exposed to traumatic situations.
She was also aware of the traditional modes for using therapy dog services in settings such as hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, libraries, hospices and disaster areas. Her curiosity led her and her canine partner, a certified and trained therapy dog Kerith, to visit the EMTs and nurses at the emergency department in the MarinHealth Medical Center. The result was immediately evident by the smiles on the faces of everyone. She could feel and see the calming effect that Kerith was having.
That first visit was followed by many more.
During the 2020 California wildfire season, Cal Fire invited Carman to bring Kerith to basecamps for the Creek, Glass, August Complex and Woodland fires. She saw that, in Kerith’s presence, fire crews did not have to say a word. They were simply with Kerith. The calming effect was immediate and palpable.
Word spread thanks to extensive national and international media coverage. The Instagram account Carman managed for Keirth exploded to over 16,000 followers. What if she could bring therapy dog services to first responders across the country while educating people about the mental health challenges faced daily?
The 2020 media coverage inspired interest across the county, with others wanting to join Carman’s mission. She pursued the next logical step – in January 2021, a new therapy dog service organization for first responders was launched. The San Rafael nonprofit is called First Responder Therapy Dogs (FRTD).
There are approximately 4.6 million career and volunteer first responders across the country facing physically, emotionally and mentally challenging situations daily. What if she could provide this simple, proven free service as a tool for helping first responders improve their mental health challenges?
FRTD now has 182 therapy dog teams (dog and handler) in 34 states. FRTD therapy dog teams have made nearly 2,000 visits, reaching more than 45,000 first responders.
Many don’t know about the impact on first responders from the constant exposure to stress and trauma. This exposure increases the risk of severe mental health issues developing, including hopelessness, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, suicidal ideation and actualized attempts.
The presence of a trained therapy dog is proven to bring a calming effect, helping to reduce stress while improving moods. Stress reduction improves focus for first responders to serve their community while also receiving care for themselves.
As described by many first responders, a therapy dog brings a welcome sense of calm and compassion with no expectations, just a genuine desire to love and support. The impact is just as the research shows — the presence of therapy animals can lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, improve mood and foster feelings of support and confidence in humans.
Carman’s work caught the attention of television producer Marc Garabedian, who is developing a video series called “Art Adventures.” Garabedian plans to make the proven results of First Responder Therapy Dogs a focus of one episode.
The attraction to create the episode is strategic. If the series is picked up by a broadcast network, it could reach millions of viewers. Importantly, the program will educate viewers about first responders’ mental health challenges and cultivate the growth of therapy dog team services across all 50 states.
Garabedian and FRTD are raising funds to produce the episode. To learn more about the organization and contribute to the effort go to firstrespondertherapydogs.org.
Mary Currie, of Novato, is president of the First Responder Therapy Dogs Board of Directors.