San Diego firefighters were wrapping up after their fourth call before 9 a.m. one day when Genoa, a yellow lab-golden retriever mix, was brought beside their truck.

One by one, firefighters returned gear to the vehicle, pausing each time over a half-hour to pet or hug Genoa, a crisis response dog, doing her job of releasing stress of his human companions.

“There was just a steady stream of snuggles and pets,” said Betsy Salzman, Genoa’s handler. “(Dogs) normalize the day for them. They bring them back to a balance.”

Speaking at a recent ceremony to welcome new dogs into the ranks, San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell said: “Our workforce has been under tremendous stress lately — the impacts of COVID, exhaustion, an historic fire season up north.”

At that Balboa Park event, Stowell said his folks were just extremely exhausted. Stress was carrying over off-duty as well. Thus the canine program was developed as a relief mechanism to help fire personnel cope with job stresses in a calming environment.

Genoa was one of two crisis dogs at the recent 9-11 anniversary ceremony aboard the USS Midway. Salzman recalls that a veteran, who had lost both a military buddy and service dog recently, approached Genoa, asked to pet him and began to sob.

After petting the dog, the veteran said he would be OK and left the ceremony.

“Of everyone on the ship, he knew that she would be able to give him what he needed,” Salzman said, “They can look into souls when we can’t, and they provide an unconditional love that we as humans sometimes cannot, and a care that we cannot.”

Suicides of First Responders

Nationwide, 97 firefighters and 26 EMTs and paramedics died by suicide in 2020, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. Firefighters are more likely to die of suicide than in the line of duty, said a Centers for Disease Control article.

In San Diego, gone are the days when firefighters are expected to just suck it up, and deal with stresses alone.

San Diego Fire and Rescue started a wellness program in 2005 to address the physical health of fire personnel.

But “it took us a very long time to start recognizing the importance of mental health as well,” the chief said. The program’s goal is to help employees become healthier and more productive and improve the quality of their lives. 

San Diego’s year-old Crisis Response Canine Program, said to be the first in the nation under a chaplaincy program, has received overwhelming positive employee reception, the chief said.

“(Dogs) love going into the fire stations and develop that bond with our folks immediately,” Stowell said.

The dogs are thanks to Gina Esoldi, director of the nonprofit Next Step Service Dogs, who trains them with the handlers for about 120 hours and donates them to San Diego Fire Rescue, the San Diego Police Department and the La Mesa Police Department.

Most are yellow labrador and golden retriever mixes because of their temperament and nonthreatening appearance. One is a standard poodle. Dogs are matched to the handler’s personality and the department’s tasks.

Fire-Rescue Officer Launched Program

Battalion Chief David Picone, health and safety officer for the SDFRD, started the program, and the first dog was received about a year and a half ago. (The Health and Safety program provides counseling for current employees, family and retired personnel along with its chaplaincy services.)

Two dogs recently received their harnesses with badges, bringing the fire department’s crisis response canine total to four. Several of the 17 chaplains now have a 24/7 furry live-in companion.

They are always on call.

On the future of the program, Picone said: “It’s new, so I am real excited to see what long term this looks like. I would never have imagined five years ago that we would be where we are today. It’s just been incredible.”

The department’s chaplain program isn’t solely pastoral, Picone said, as the training involves crisis intervention and dealing with traumas to help fire employees as well as the public.

The dogs are taken to locations such as structure fires and fatal car crashes — wherever firefighters face increased stress.

On the scene, they also comfort families of victims. In addition, they are helpful at debriefings, in dispatchers’ offices and just hanging around the fire station.

While historically people associate dogs with fire stations, a la Dalmatians, those dogs of yore were tasked with guiding and corralling the horses that pulled the fire carts and guarding the fire equipment.

Likewise, working dogs have been used by fire and police departments for rescue missions, bomb sniffing and for aiding in criminal apprehensions.

But these dogs are different: Their purpose is to be lovers, not fighters. Their jobs are to give and receive affection.

Facility dogs, as they are called, are highly trained canines, taught to be exceptionally obedient with good manners, while maintaining their calm under noisy and chaotic situations.

In return, the handlers keep the dogs out of harm’s way and give them chances to play at home and just be dogs. “(Genoa’s) safety and well-being is always my concern,” Salzman said.

Handlers also are trained to notice when the dog is stressed and needs time off to recuperate.

“The dogs sense people in stress,” said Kevin Johnstone, chaplain and handler of Kassie. “They sense the pheromones they give off. They go right to them.”

“Whether we can get a civilian who has suffered a loss or the firefighters to start petting her, then their blood pressure comes down,” he added. “Their heart rate comes down. They will talk to the dogs where they won’t talk to me.”

Handlers find that the vast majority of the firefighters really look forward to the dog’s presence in the fire station and on calls, he said.

“It’s been a tremendous asset to have the dogs,” Johnstone said.

Kassie’s 50 Trained Behaviors

Kassie will put her chin on the firefighter’s leg, climb up onto their lap or give a full hug. The dog has 50 trained behaviors. Kassie is intelligent with a good energy level, yet chill when circumstances require, he said.

“I see people calm down,” Johnstone said, “I see people who are in distress forget about their distress for a moment, focus on the dog. She is very good at getting their attention and loving on them. As soon as that interaction begins taking place, then we are able to help them on a chaplain level to work through whatever the critical event was.”

Kassie, who is one of two dogs who just joined the department, also has a calming effect on him, Johnstone said, keeping him focused on his job. “She’s lovely to have around.” 

Dana Collins, whose 3-year-old facility dog, Knox, also recently joined the department, said: “I think it gives us another way to help the first responders. It’s another tool in the toolbox to help them.”

“Just seeing the stress melt out of people after these incidents because they are able to play with the dog and have that companionship is amazing,” Collins said.

“PTSD is obviously on the rise with the horrible things that our firefighters, police and EMS have to see,” she said. “If this is one opportunity for them to find healing … I think it is an amazing asset to have for our team. Who could say no to that face?” 

Next Step Service Dogs are accredited by Assistance Dog International and are trained under the same standard as assistance dogs, but aren’t trained for people with a disability, Esoldi said.

Independently, Esoldi also trains service dogs for veterans, first responders with PTSD and those with traumatic brain disorder or mobility issues.

The canines have to pass a manners and obedience test at the highest level amid distractions from the public. In addition, they must stay focused on their handler, greet someone appropriately and pick up items dropped by the handler.

Dogs will undergo training throughout their lives and are retested every three months.

When two of her dogs recently were welcomed into the fire department, she cried.

“It makes me feel so good,” Esoldi said. “It’s the greatest joy. It’s so rewarding.”

The training is also specific. For example, Genoa tends to sniff a lot, so she is guided to break that habit in high-traffic areas such as a mall and places were other dogs have left their marks.

Donations, Grants Finance Dog Training

Next Step Service Dogs is funded by donations and grants.

Esoldi also has donated dogs to the San Diego and La Mesa police agencies.

La Mesa police Lt. Katy Lynch, handler of 2-year-old facility dog Dex, said she approached her chief, Ray Sweeney, about a facility dog for the department after volunteering at Next Step Service Dogs.

Sweeney approved, and a pilot program started at the beginning of this August and by the end of the month was a permanent program, she said.

Dex helps employees on a day-to-day basis. When Dex walks into the dispatch office, “everyone lights up and wants to see him,” she said.

Lynch relates that officers will stop by her office to see the dog and then leave saying: “I can go back to work now. I can make it through the day.”

Having Dex has been a plus for her, too.

“I’ve always been a dog person, but didn’t expect the impact that he would have on me, his presence all the time,” Lynch said. “He has definitely brought my stress level down, and has woken me up from nightmares. I’ve very glad that he is with me.”

Considering the La Mesa Police Department’s size (about 70 sworn officers), it would be good to have a second dog, Lynch said.

Dani Resch of the SDPD, who works with canine Walker, said the dog has been beneficial in office interactions too.

Resch recalls how when two employees weren’t getting along, Walker was called to be a calming influence. Walker got his favorite belly rubs.

After both sides had a cooling down session with Walker, coworkers’ arms and legs became uncrossed and they agreed to listen to each other.

“Walker opens conversations up that we probably wouldn’t have without Walker being there,” Resch said.

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