UTAH (ABC4) – First responders are undoubtedly heroes. Saving lives is physically demanding work and it also takes a toll on their mental health. Extra shifts, longer hours, uncertainty about COVID-19 and an increase in health-related emergency calls during the pandemic have added to the stress of an already stressful career. At the Ogden Fire Department, service dogs help break through the stigma of addressing mental health and getting help when needed.
The sound of sirens often means help is on the way. During what is often a person’s worst day, first responders are there to help. However, the trauma is often passed along to those who came to the rescue.
“Nobody wants to be perceived as weak,” Targee Williams told ABC4. “We’re the people who help others and we’re not good at asking for help.” Williams is a retired firefighter. Nonetheless, he frequently visits the fire station. During these visits, he’s accompanied by his dog Copper.
“The past is what causes us depression and the future is what causes us anxiety and a lot of times we live in between those two places,” Williams stated. “(We’re) worried about the next traumatic event, (while) living with the last traumatic event.”
Copper is a service animal. Williams and the dog visit the station to help firefighters, paramedics and police officers live in the present, momentarily forget about their worries and express their worries.
Williams and Copper started doing this at the station in 2018. Fast forward to 2022 and there is now a new addition to the team.
“He just brings me down,” Cpt. Zac Winkler said while pointing to his dog Jäger. “Like Targee said, (he) keeps me in the present. I don’t have as much anxiety about the stuff going on in the future or the stuff that may or may not have happened in the past.”
Winkler and Jäger have nearly completed the service dog training through the nonprofit 4 Paws 4 Patriots. While Williams is retired, his work with Copper is far from being finished. Now, with the addition of Winkler and Jäger, there are even more opportunities for the first responders to break down the stigma surrounding mental health.
Although Cpt. Winkler may have additional duties being a handler, it was an easy decision to make.
“Anybody who knows me can say how much dogs mean to me, and I just realized I could give a little bit back with him,” he added as he nodded signaling that he was talking about his dog.
How does having a dog at the fire station (which is also the Ogden police headquarters and the Weber County dispatch center) help first responders improve their mental health?
“When I bring the dog into the station, it changes that chemistry inside their brain for the good,” Williams explained.
“They serve to kind of disarm you,” Amanda King added. “People see a dog and immediately their blood pressure drops, their heart rate drops, they’re just more open to talking.”
King is a paramedic and the peer support coordinator for the fire department. When a first responder relaxes as he or she is interacting with one of the dogs and decides to open up about what may be weighing him or her down, King and the other peer support members jump into action.
“We’re not therapists, we’re not trained psychologists, but we’re basically there as the first people who can come in if there’s a fellow team member who’s having a mental crisis,” King explained. During that interaction, the peer support member can direct their fellow first responder to additional resources. “We have great programs and great therapists through Previdence that the city has contracted with. Trauma therapists who are able to talk to the members of our department,” stated King.
Officials told ABC4 that the need to address mental health resources and help among first responders has grown during the pandemic. They said the dog program is working so well that they plan to expand it even more.
The nonprofit 4 Paws 4 Patriots works to train service dogs, and their handlers, for free. The program consists of several courses and benefits first responders and veterans. According to the organization, it was “created to provide service dogs to veterans and first responders. Saving our heroes 4 Paws at a time.”