Most of us have heard the adage “All dogs go to heaven”.
No argument here.
Many other goodest boys and bestest girls bring a touch of heaven to earth.
Then there are SOME dogs that bring goodness and hope and light to the men and women that regularly stare directly into hell—both personal and professional—just to keep us safe and protected.
These dogs are First Responder Therapy Dogs. And this is a story about Kerith, a Golden Retriever who loved so hard and so well, she started a movement.
CAREER TO CALLING
Kerith may have been born to become a seeing-eye dog at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, but she was destined for therapeutic work. “She was too friendly to every person she saw and very solicitous for attention” said Heidi Carman, Kerith’s mom and handler. Heidi had been Kerith’s volunteer puppy-raiser since she was 8 weeks old (Kerith, not Heidi). So when Guide Dogs for the Blind said they were no longer training 14-month-old Kerith to become a service dog, Heidi was able to adopt her as her own pet.
Heidi immediately got Kerith certified as a therapy dog and started volunteering at their local emergency department. In the world of service animals, this is known as becoming “career changed”. But according to Heidi, after she met a few paramedics, Kerith didn’t change careers as much as she found her calling. “It was love at first sight for both the paramedics and Kerith” Heidi recalled. “The firefighters asked us to come visit them at their fire station and that was the beginning of First Responder Therapy Dogs”.
WE NEED MORE KERITHS
According to her research at the time, Heidi couldn’t find any other therapy dog organizations that served only first responders. Kerith, with Heidi’s help, had stumbled upon a great need; and just in time. She started her non-profit First Responder Therapy Dogs shortly after the 2020 fire season began. According to the CalFire Incident Archive, that fire season saw 8,648 fires which burned 4,304,379 acres and claimed 33 lives. One of those fires was in Kerith’s community, so she and Heidi started visiting basecamps in the area. It’s no surprise that Heidi could see how powerful Kerith’s visits had become for the men and women on the fireline—her smiles and tail wags providing a sense of normalcy for the first responders that put their own lives on pause for months in order to fight-back the deadly and destructive flames.
It also became apparent that Kerith couldn’t meet all these needs all on her own.
So, Heidi and a few of her friends formed a small advisory committee and created a virtual First Responder Therapy Dog certification—and they struck peanut butter! At first a few other local dogs were certified, and within a few months, there was a team certified outside of California. From that firefighter in Oregon to a team in Colorado, then to Massachusetts, teams of therapy dogs were being certified across the country using Heidi’s proprietorial program. Despite never advertising, First Responder Therapy Dogs just announced they have 150 teams in 33 states—all in the span of just three years! Heidi credits the swiftness of their scale largely to their social media presence. “I think a big way people have found out about us is through social media” Heidi told us. “We have [Instagram, Facebook] and TikTok.”
However, another reason for how quickly other First Responder Therapy Dog teams have sprouted up is the great need for them. “I believe therapy dogs help because often first responders do not like talking about their feelings” Heidi says. “Time with a dog requires no talking but there are huge benefits without any words being said. Also, seeing therapy dogs during their shift which is often not normal (base camp, etc.) helps give them a sense of normal.” Studies have shown that time with a therapy dog lowers blood pressure, lowers stress, and helps increase all the feel-good chemicals in a person’s body. Dogs also have a knack for knowing who needs them most. “When we visit, we walk in and Kerith usually knows just who needs her first” Heidi explains.
Kerith and Heidi go to police departments to visit with officers, fire stations, 9-1-1 dispatch, wildland fire base camps, emergency calls, hospitals, or anywhere else she is needed. They attend first responder funerals and debriefs after critical incidents. Recently, Kerith visited the coroner’s office after a tough case. “We walk around and visit everyone there” Heidi says. “Based on feedback I know she is really helping everyone she encounters.”
So, what makes for training a good first responder therapy dog, and what is the process for certification?
Glad you asked.
“Our certification consists of education for the handler on the first responder world through online courses, and we do a background check on them” Heidi explains. “The dog must pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test and a behavioral assessment, where they are around things one finds in the first responder world; lights and sirens, full gear, turnouts, riot gear etc. We want the dog to be unbothered by all these things.” And temperament? “Therapy dogs need to be well behaved, love the attention of people, love to be pet and touched”.
Heidi’s goal is to have therapy dogs in all 50 states, and to have enough therapy dog teams so that every single first responder can have access to a therapy dog. “I have been told by first responders on visits that we are saving lives” Heidi says. “On visits [Kerith] has the ability to make everyone feel special”.
…Who is cutting onions?
If you would like to learn more about Kerith and Heidi and First Responder Therapy Dogs, or if you would like to donate to their paws…I mean cause, visit their website at www.firstrespondertherapydogs.org, or email them at [email protected]. You can also follow Kerith on Instagram at Kerith_the_golden_retriever. And while you’re there, you can also follow First Responder Therapy Dogs on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.