LAFD Firefighters risk their lives every day in attempt to save yours. Responding to thousands of calls a day, facing danger, unbelievable stress and anxiety, they see the worst of the worst. Death, agony, grief and sorrow. But who comes to their rescue? Who can help firefighters face the reality that at times their job can be too hard to take? Meet Willow, one of the LAFD’s canine first responders and her handler LAFD Battalion Chief Robert Takeshita. Willow is a peer support dog who can work wonders, helping firefighters manage their mental health and cope with one of the toughest jobs in the world.

Rescue Tail: An English Labrador gets a new purpose as an unexpected hero

Willow and Fire Station 52 firefightersWillow is a member of the Los Angeles Fire Department and provides comfort when firefighters need help relieving stress. She’s a 5-year-old English lab. Willow was generously donated by the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation with the help of the LAFD Foundation and Wallis Annenberg PetSpace. Willow’s been in service since January of 2022.

Willow giving comfort to a firefighterWillow went through extensive training and evaluation before becoming an LAFD Peer Support Dog. Her handler LAFD Battalion Chief Robert Takeshita describes how Willow joined the Department:

“Willow was actually a rescue, they found out she had problems, she was going to be a breeding dog. So, the owner said, Willow has the right temperament, she’s really smart, she can be trained, she has social skills, she’s the right dog for this program.

Patriotic Service Dog Willow

She was given to the Patriotic Service dog foundation, where they trained her 6-8 months prior to me giving any training to her. She was well trained before coming out to the training facility, and then that’s when the training began with me. For the training itself, I had to go twice a week, all the way out to Murrieta, California. The training incorporated command and control. Our bonding component was part of training. Every day I reinforce command and control. But I have to adjust. She’s here for the social aspect of it. It’s the socialization, the visits. Firefighters know this is her place to be.”

Willow and Chief Takeshita respond to large incidents and fire stations to help firefighters combat signs of PTSD, depression and anxiety. The LAFD Foundation is working with the Department’s Behavioral Health division to acquire another canine peer support group dog. Funds raised by the foundation will help cover the training and medical costs related to the program.

Reducing Stress and Anxiety: The Canine Effect

Animal-assisted crisis response dogs can help firefighters after traumatic events. They can be used to temporarily reduce stress and anxiety, aid in coping with the devasting parts of their job and helping people realize they may need to see mental health professionals to get through rough times.

Peer support group dogs can provide mental and physical health benefits according to health studies. Some of the benefits include lowering blood pressure, triggering the release of hormones that make you feel better, lowering anxiety and decreasing loneliness.

First responders face higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety issues related to the severity of tragic incidents they face on a daily basis, according to the LAFD Foundation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. The LAFD Canine Therapy program was launched in December of 2020 as part of the department’s Behavioral Health Division.

Firefighters and Suicide

There are many reports and studies on the number of firefighter and other first responder suicides in the United States, but not all are conclusive. We took a look at the latest and this is what we found.

CalMatters reports, “Although there are ample anecdotal stories about suicides among California firefighters, there is no data detailing the scope of the problem at Cal Fire. National data also is sparse, but suicides appear to be increasing nationwide: The firefighter behavioral health alliance has verified 1,750 firefighter suicides since 1880, with 95% of the deaths occurring between 2000 and 2022. Jeff Dill, a retired fire chief who founded the alliance, estimates that only about a third of firefighter suicides are identified because of the social stigma and code of silence.”

According to an exclusive report from USA today:

“A new study provided exclusively to USA TODAY from the Ruderman Family Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that advocates for people with disabilities, found that police officers and firefighters continue to be more likely to die by suicide than working in the line of duty, maintaining a similar finding the group concluded in a 2018 study. But in 2020, COVID-19 became the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers.”

The USA TODAY report states: “Researchers and advocates say the discrepancy in suicide rates among the general population and first responders is rooted in unaddressed shame and stigma associated with suicide, a lack of research and resources for first responders dealing with mental health challenges and growing pressure and stress from the pandemic.”

 

First responder suicide chart

Overcoming fear of repercussions

The exclusive USA TODAY report also revealed, “A 2019 survey from the University of Phoenix found nearly half of first responders believe there would be repercussions on the job for seeking professional counseling, including receiving different treatment from coworkers or supervisors and being perceived as weak by colleagues and peers.”

We also found another study from Ruderman Family Foundation which uncovered more:

“A white paper commissioned by the Foundation has revealed that first responders (policemen and firefighters) are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides. In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty. Suicide is a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD, which stems from constant exposure to death and destruction.”

Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: ‘First responders, including law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical services (EMS) clinicians, and public safety telecommunicators, are crucial to ensuring public safety and health. First responders may be at elevated risk for suicide because of the environments in which they work, their culture, and stress, both occupational and personal. This stress can be acute (associated with a specific incident) or chronic (an accumulation of day-to-day stress). Occupational stress in first responders is associated with increased risk of mental health issues, including hopelessness, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, as well as suicidal behaviors such as suicidal ideation (thinking about or planning suicide) and attempts.

Even during routine shifts, first responders can experience stress due to the uncertainty in each situation. During emergencies, disasters, pandemics, and other crises, stress among first responders can be magnified. Relationship problems have also been linked to a large proportion of suicides among the general population (42%) Because first responders can have challenging work schedules and extreme family-work demands, stress caused by relationship problems may also be magnified in this worker group.”

A common bond leads to healing

Chief Takeshita says the importance of peer support is “Now you’re talking to someone who has the same language. Same understanding. Talking fireground tactics, what they experienced on the road, what they experienced in the interior of a building, having things fall on them, almost falling through a roof. We can relate. Some things I’ve seen in my 33-year career, I don’t even share with the family because, I don’t think they should hear it.”

Takeshita says he can share with fellow firefighters. They can relate to each other because of a common bond and that what’s what he says makes peer support strong. Adding, “It’s that someone can talk your language, understand what you’re saying to me.”

Adding a dog to the mix helps open the lines of communication. Retired LAFD Firefighter Paramedic Leah Fleischmann, who is now with the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation says “Oh definitely, we want dogs to have dogs around, it’s a natural! As part of the research, you pet a dog, your blood pressure goes down. Not only that, the hormones that give you stress like cortisol, it helps with that, by just petting a dog, having a dog around. And it’s a non-verbal communication, that’s done on a level that’s organic. It makes you where you’re more relaxed, you’re a bit more happy, not hyper focused on what’s going on at the time.”

Certified Therapy Dogs: Service vs. Peer Support Dogs

Fleischmann says service dogs and peer support group dogs basically have the same skills. She says “A service dog is assigned to one person, so it’ll be just for the person. As for a peer support dog, their skills are used for a group of people. As much an ice breaker, as skills go, their trained exactly the same. There’s no difference.”

So, what about Willow? Fleischmann says, “Willow could be one person’s service dog, if we wanted to, but her application is to be in a group setting.” Already, she is making an impact and a difference for our firefighter heroes.

Learn More:

Patriotic Service Dog Foundation

The Patriotic Service Dog Foundation is a non-profit organization that serves the U.S. Military and first responders by raising awareness for their needs by providing service dogs to those who may benefit from long-term mental and physical assistance. According to the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation, each day in America, 22 of our heroes will take their own lives. Their goal is to reduce that number from “22 to Zero.”

Wallis Annenberg PetSpace: Proud Partner of the LAFD Foundation

Wallis Annenberg PetSpace is a unique community space featuring an interactive place for pet adoptions, an education center, and an academic leadership institute. The mission of Annenberg PetSpace is to strengthen and promote the human-animal bond.

As a proud partner of the LAFD Foundation, the Wallis Annenberg PetSpace is a founding supporter of the LAFD’s canine therapy program. The organization is committed to strengthening and celebrating the human-animal connection and recognizes the significant impact that can be made through these types of therapy initiatives.

Wallis Annenberg PetSpace values the significance of the incredible physical and mental challenges that our firefighters are tasked with on a daily basis and is thrilled to invest in a more widespread canine therapy program to help additional first responders benefit from the healing presence of these animals.

By Charles Stewart

Important phone numbers

  • National Suicide prevention lifeline 800-273-8255
  • UFLAC Peer Support Health and wellness 747-200-6266

Read more from our sources:
USA TODAY Report
Ruderman Foundation Study

 Check Out Wallis Annenberg PetSpace
Visit the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation website

Read more about Firefighter and Canine Hero Teams