Three adorable doodles are at the center of a new therapy dog program started by a Seattle Fire Department Lieutenant to help first responders cope with the stresses of the job.
Registered therapy dogs Zoe, Bob, and Hera are the personal pets of their firefighter-handlers who work with the department’s Critical Incident Stress Management and Peer Support Team. When at the station, the dogs provide comfort and calm for the firefighters, and when off-duty, they can be deployed with the team to help debrief responders after emotionally charged incidents.
“I didn’t set out this way, but all three, coincidentally, are doodles,” said Lt. Mike Dulas, who started the program.
Dulas’s dog Zoe is a three-year-old Bernedoodle, nine-year-old Bob is a Goldendoodle, and Hera is a Great Pyrenees/Poodle mix.
Firefighters and other first responders are regularly exposed to traumatic situations. The International Association of Firefighters cites a study that found nearly 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics meet criteria for PTSD at some point during their career.
“Suicide amongst first responders is on the increase,” said Dulas. “And like the military, it’s an issue, so we’re just trying to kind of bring awareness to that, that’s part of our mission.”
A Personal Mission
The program is personal for Dulas. His older brother, also a firefighter, has suffered with PTSD, and a younger brother who served in the Army died by suicide.
“That’s a lot of where my motivation was,” he said. “I didn’t want to go down those paths.”
But Dulas was also impacted by his own experience. He was part of a team that helped search for victims in the 2014 Oso landslide that occurred northwest of Seattle.
A massive slope failure caused 18 million tons of sand, sediment, and clay to come down at speeds up to 40 mph, burying an entire neighborhood. The debris field was estimated at one square mile wide and 20 to 80 feet deep. More than 40 people were killed.
Dulas spent days at the scene, searching for victims.
“My particular role was…they would load mud into a dump truck and go take it to clean dirt. I was running search dogs through to make sure we didn’t miss anything,” he said. “And when they found someone we would go load them into a body bag, so some pretty different stuff.”
Dulas said his work at Oso was where he initially got the idea to start the therapy dog program.
”Because at the end of the day, petting the search dogs was kind of the most normal part of that whole experience,” he said.
PTSD Growing Among First Responders
Many firefighters develop symptoms of PTSD. Problems can include trouble sleeping, anger management issues, self-medicating, and isolation from friends and family.
“It’s kind of the same as the military when you go down the list of symptoms,” said Dulas.
Many firefighters don’t feel comfortable talking about their struggles, even with fellow firefighters.
“But if you don’t deal with this stuff on your own terms, it’s going to choose the time to deal with you, and it’s going to pick a time, and it’s going to be largely destructive,” said Dulas.
If you don’t deal with this stuff on your own terms, it’s going to choose the time to deal with you.
The three doodles are a way to reach people.
“With Zoe, I can go to a station and instead of being like, ‘hey, I’m Mike from peer support. I’m here to talk about your feelings,’ with Zoe I can go there and be like, ‘hey, this is Zoe, she’s here to say hi,’” said Dulas. “So, I kind of call her my support person because I can bring her to the station and they don’t even realize what we’re doing, and that we’re there checking on them. So, it’s a really, really helpful thing.”
“Dogs are proven to lower PTSD symptoms,” said Dulas. “They’re proven to lower your blood pressure, your pulse rate, they foster the release of positive stress hormones in your brain like dopamine.”
Dulas said the dogs come to the fire station with their handlers but they don’t live there.
“Just like us, the dogs get tired,” he said. “They absorb the stress, the energy, from everyone there. So, the dogs know what’s going on even when it’s a routine day.”
They don’t go on the rig, they don’t respond with us, said Dulas. When we get back, we let them out and play with them.
The dogs stay at the station when crews get a call.
“They don’t go on the rig, they don’t respond with us,” said Dulas. “When we get back, we let them out and play with them and they get to visit with the crews.”
Doodles on Duty
The other part of the doodles’ work is the call out.
“I will visit other departments, other police departments, and try to just thank them for their service and what they do and hang out and bring a little joy,” said Dulas.
Dulas got Zoe with the intent of making her a therapy dog and was working toward that when the coronavirus hit. He was a supervisor at one of the Seattle testing sites and he started bringing Zoe with him.
“She would sit with people when they got tested or when they got vaccinated,” he said. “We would greet them…and play music and everybody was really appreciative. And it was just a very relaxed environment for a very stressful experience.”
It was just a very relaxed environment for a very stressful experience.
“I wanted to start this work, so I approached the fire chief and asked for a pilot program of three dogs, and they graciously approved it,” he said.
Dulas started Zoe’s Instagram account to help educate people about mental health and self-care.
“I think as firefighters, we get so embedded in our job, and it does become normal. We don’t think often about what we see and that it is sometimes traumatic. And we need to take time out of our day to do some self-care. So that’s part of what I use Zoe’s account for is to educate people like, hey, you’re up all night, take a nap, go for a hike, call a friend, that type of stuff. So really the other piece that really helps me is I’m able to just use her as a platform to educate other people on self-care.”
Zoe, Dulas, and the other dogs and handlers recently spent a fun day at the Seattle Mariners Bark in the Park event and he was pleased by how well it went.
“One of the things I talk about is that the dogs are kind of like kids, and you know, every once in a while your kids do really well,” he said. “That really was a validation of our training…the dogs were amazing. There’s all these crazy dogs walking around, all these people, we’re walking through crowds and the dogs just did really well, and that’s part of how we train them. “
The doodles frequently go out to meet the public, whether it’s to Pike Place Market, a meet and greet with a Scout troop, or a visit with nurses at Harborview Medical Center.
“We just walk around these crazy busy environments, and the dogs are like, ‘oh, this is totally normal. And I’m just going to be on my best behavior and I’ll be right here next to Mike, and people will pet me and love me…and the dogs just kind of know that it’s normal.”
More Therapy Pups to Join the Pack
Dulas said there are more dogs in training.
“I’m hoping to expand (the program) to six teams because already there’s more work than we can do,” he said.
All expenses are paid by the handlers because the program doesn’t have a dedicated funding source. Donations can be made through the Seattle Fire Foundation.