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Longboat Key Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019 1 week ago

Hunter the dog helps first responders tackle mental health issues

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The golden retriever aids first responders in feeling comfortable and opening up to discuss topics from PTSD to anxiety
by: Brendan Lavell General Assignment Reporter

Work can be tough. Whether you’re hustling to meet a deadline, trying to satisfy clients, or searching for an elusive compromise, difficult tasks are asked of virtually every working person, blue- or white-collar.

This goes a step further for first-responders. They have to figure out how to calm themselves while trying to be their best when the people they serve are experiencing their worst.

“The things that people don’t see maybe in a lifetime, we may see multiple times in a month,” Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department Deputy Chief Sandi Drake said. “And you’re going from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds.”

That kind of emotion doesn't just disappear with a quiet drive home.  That’s where Hunter comes in.

Hunter is a 6-year-old English golden retriever owned by Drake. Whereas many dogs show their love for humans by jumping, pawing or barking, Drake called Hunter a “cuddlebug.” He’s calmer than your average canine, and virtually anyone who has spent time with him agrees he is remarkably perceptive of human emotions.

Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department Deputy Chief Sandi Drake get an award for their work with PTSD.

His path to becoming a therapy dog began when Drake began volunteering with the Humane Society in December 2017. She decided to have Hunter trained for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national organization that provides “testing, certification, registration, support, and insurance for members who volunteer with their dogs in animal-assisted activities,” according to its website.

In November 2018, Drake and Hunter took classes through the University of Central Florida for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and focusing on mental health in first responders. Paul Dezzi, Longboat Key’s fire chief, also participated.

“Firemen are usually your typical alpha-male persona,” Longboat Key firefighter Chase Bullock said. “It’s hard for them to admit to having feelings for the most part — some of them, not all. And having an animal that you don’t even have to talk to, you can just pet, it really helps them out.”

From there, they worked with Charles Nechtem Associates to offer group PTSD counseling classes for the department’s firefighters. This grew to include Longboat Key’s police officers and eventually become a “first responder wellness program,” Drake said, which also included classes on topics such as suicide prevention and anxiety.

Hunter, of course, plays a part in these meetings. His happy yet calm demeanor makes Hunter ideally suited to sit in on therapy and counseling sessions. It’s easier for some people to broach difficult topics or open up about their emotions when they can pet a big, fluffy ball of golden fur.

“A lot of people tend to hold things in, myself included,” Longboat Key firefighter Dawn Dunkum said. “I wasn’t really a firm believer in the therapy thing as far as the PTSD thing and talking with somebody. But it actually does help. You listen to everybody else and you feel like you’re not the only one. It definitely relieves stress and stuff like that. Having a dog in there makes it a lot easier to open up. I don’t know what it is, but it just makes it a lot easier.”

“It’s a much more inviting and relaxing environment (with Hunter there),” fellow firefighter David Oliger added.

“With our jobs,” Drake said, “our wealth is our health. And we need to make sure that we are healthy mentally. Everybody thinks physical. They’re like, ‘Firefighters have to be strong, they have to be athletic.’ Which is true. But a big component of it is mental awareness.

“It’s important because with the fire department, there’s more suicides than line-of-duty deaths. So now they’re starting to do education with wellness, PTSD, making sure that the first responders take care of themselves. Because typically, first responders put everybody else first, and they put themselves last.”

Hunter lies down next to his owner, Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department Deputy Chief Sandi Drake.

In addition to working with first responders, Drake takes Hunter on what she calls “wellness visits.” This includes trips to hospitals, schools and nursing homes, but it can also be as simple as bringing him to the fire station on one of his off-duty days or taking him for a walk through town hall or the police department.

“Even with jobs that aren’t emergency-related, people have day-to-day struggles,” Drake said.

“It’s an instant stress reliever to have some unconditional love,” Bullock added. “I wish we could have him around the station all the time.”

Brendan Lavell is a general assignment reporter for the Observer. He earned degrees in journalism and history at the University of Missouri. He has visited 48 of the 50 United States, has a black cat named Arya and roots for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, 76ers and Chelsea FC.

See All Articles by Brendan

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