From pandemic to wildfires, Bay Area therapy dogs support first responders on the frontlines

By Jessica Wolfrom

By Jessica Wolfrom

Examiner staff writer

When Heidi Carman arrived at the Moscone Center in March, she didn’t bring proof of her eligibility to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Instead, she brought her 3-year-old, wispy-coated golden retriever named Kerith.

The pair arrived at the thrumming epicenter of The City’s COVID operation to support the exhausted ranks of health-care workers and city employees. For months, the wiggly, 57-pound therapy dog has showed up to put smiles on masked faces and provide a temporary escape from the stress of serving the public during a global pandemic.

But now Kerith and a growing number of certified therapy animals are working on the frontlines of yet another crisis: California’s wildfires. Over the past few weeks, therapy dogs have made regular appearances at the Dixie and Caldor Fire base camps, providing early morning belly rubs and much-needed relief to firefighters.

“I couldn’t imagine how positive the dogs were going to be until I saw for my own eyes,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jeremy Sanders, adding that the dogs provide a rare sense of normalcy amid the extraordinary circumstances.

Firefighters often spend weeks away from their families, working grueling hours under extreme conditions. But despite the pressures of their jobs, talking openly about mental health can feel like a bridge too far. That’s where organizations like First Responder Therapy Dogs come in, planting slobbery kisses on smoke-streaked faces, and helping to break down stigmas about mental health.

“It’s so simple, it’s just petting a dog,” said Carman. “But she’s so good at what she does. … It’s an invaluable service.”

Carman founded the Bay Area-based nonprofit in January after spending last fire season with Kerith at Marin County’s Woodward Fire.

“I realized there was going to be a really, really big need for therapy dogs at the wildfire base camps,” she said.

Kerith the golden retriever is pictured with a firefighter at the Dixie Fire base camp. (Courtesy Heidi Carman)

Kerith the golden retriever is pictured with a firefighter at the Dixie Fire base camp. (Courtesy Heidi Carman)

This need has only escalated as new fires, exacerbated by a historic drought and a warming climate, continue to ravage the West. There are currently 15,000 firefighters battling 16 major fires across the state. Since January, wildfires have burned over 1.8 million acres, according to Cal Fire.

But Carman’s dogs are not just showing up to the scorched scenes of wildfires. From station visits at the San Francisco Police Department to meet and greets with rescue crews clearing the rubble of the condo collapse in Surfside Florida, Carman’s therapy dogs are serving first responders across the nation who are working around the clock to keep others safe.

“The past 18 months have really taken a toll on emergency responders,” said Officer Robert Rueca, spokesperson for the SFPD, referencing the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd. ​But when Kerith showed up at the Ingleside station last month, Reuca said she lifted spirits and allowed officers to feel human again. “It’s this emotional and very basic response to our humanity that can’t be replaced by human interaction,” he said.

Petting a dog may sound trivial, but studies show that interacting with dogs can release hormones that play a part in elevating mood. It can also slow breathing and lower blood pressure. “What people don’t talk about, or know about maybe, is the dopamine and oxytocin that you get, scientifically,” said Sanders of Cal Fire.

Sanders, who recently traded fieldwork for his current role assisting firefighters with behavioral and emotional health, is a testament to the strides the agency has made in addressing mental health within its ranks. “We’re changing the stigma slowly,” he said.

But there’s more work to do. Law enforcement officers and firefighters are still more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which noted that such deaths are likely underreported and the data on suicide rates and mental health among first responders remains scant.

Wolf, a yellow lab, and a firefighter at the Caldor Fire Base Camp in Placerville take a break. (Courtesy Kyle Winberg)

Wolf, a yellow lab, and a firefighter at the Caldor Fire Base Camp in Placerville take a break. (Courtesy Kyle Winberg)

“These guys and gals are seeing things that you and I could never fathom. They’re seeing property loss. They’re seeing loss of life,” said Kyle Winberg, a dog handler for First Responder Therapy Dogs, who spent Monday morning at the Caldor Fire coffee line with his yellow lab, Wolf. “A lot of times these guys, they have no choice but to kind of shove it down because that’s the only way they can get through it.”

But the beauty of bringing the dogs to base camp, he said, is that even for a fleeting moment, it can take people out of crisis mode. “Wolf is there to kind of just get them back in the game,” said Winberg. “We’re kind of cheerleaders in a lot of ways.”

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