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This therapy dog is helping Utah firefighters take care of their mental health

Posted at 4:02 PM, Sep 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-06 16:02:30-04

OGDEN, Utah — The Ogden City Fire Department has added a new member to its crew—a service dog working for them instead of with them.

Copper the chocolate Labrador is specially trained to help the men and women who are used to helping others.

The 2-year old lab just recently finished certification to serve as a service animal at facilities like fire departments, owner and handler Captain Targee Williams explained.

Williams and Copper will make the rounds at each fire station, greeting firefighters before and after calls.

On Thursday, Copper made his way around the dining area table.

“Good boy!” firefighters and paramedics echoed as Copper came up to each person.

“It’s been one of those days, Copper,” one of the crew members said.

Copper nuzzled first responders and gave his love, lifting his paw when someone held their hand out and jumping on laps to give service dog kisses.

Williams said Copper, “can change the mood of the fire station instantly-- just by coming through the door.”

“They just put you at ease, and it’s something that you don’t even realize consciously is going on,” firefighter and paramedic Amanda King said. “So to have Copper here, it literally just takes away tension you may not have even realized was there.”

King said Copper brightens her day and brings a smile to her face.

But it’s more than just petting a friendly dog. Williams said Copper is trained to treat acute post-traumatic stress.

He said a first responder’s brain can start to condition toward being negative because of the incidents they respond to all day.

Firefighters see people at their worst and run from crisis to crisis. They have to keep their composure and work quickly in high-stress situations.

“We tend to put ourselves last,” King said. “We’re really focused on the job, focused on what the next call is.”

They’re not necessarily focused on how the last call affected them.

Williams compared it to twisting an ankle. A firefighter who twists their ankle will get it treated so they can continue working. Mental injuries are the same way, he said.

But Capt. Williams said taking the first step to getting help can be one of the hardest things for a firefighter.

“What we’re not good at is reaching out for help when we may be struggling,” he said.

He knows how crucial it is to be able to reach out.

“Talking about it is the first step in prevention,” he said.

Williams said an Ogden firefighter died by suicide six years ago.

“Within the first hour of him being off shift, took his own life,” he said. “The same crews that relieved him at the station that morning, had to run on him and try to provide life-saving care.”

He said that proved to be a big eye-opener in the department.

Now, Williams is focused on bringing up the discussion of mental health. He’s the main peer support team coordinator for Ogden City Fire.

In addition to bringing in Copper, he said the department has partnered with a psychologist who can provide therapy and counseling to firefighters.

Originally, Williams said he was going to train Copper as a service dog for himself. But after realizing the effect Copper had, Capt. Williams said he wanted to share the benefits.

Not only is Copper helping firefighters, but Williams said dispatchers and Ogden Police officers also like to come to visit with the dog.

Williams walked Copper into the fire department kitchen Thursday afternoon, where two people stood.

“How’s everybody’s day going?” he asked.

A firefighter leaned down to pet Copper, and responded: “Better now.”