How AMR's therapy dog program is helping EMS providers cope with 'unimaginable' stress
Goldendoodles Saydee and Bodhi have made it their mission to relieve the emotional stress EMTs and paramedics experience while on duty and at deployments
Eight years ago, if someone had told Lauren Christie – a college graduate with a degree in business administration and marketing – that one day she would spearhead an EMS therapy dog program, she probably wouldn't have believed it herself.
With no previous background in EMS or clinical experience, Christie said she never thought she would take a position as a project coordinator for the state of Texas. She is currently based out of Amarillo, Texas, and focuses on the business side of EMS for American Medical Response.
Over the years, Christie said her respect for what EMTs and paramedics endure on a daily basis has only intensified.
"It's just amazing the type of people these paramedics and EMTs are," she said. "The average person can't even imagine seeing what they see."
And that's how the therapy dog program started – by Christie acknowledging and witnessing firsthand that responders needed a different way to cope with the emotions and stress because of what they experience while on shift.
Tragedy brings light to therapy dogs
On June 12, 2016, a gunman with an assault rifle opened fire in the Orlando Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others.
While news reports rolled in, Christie noticed a headline that caught her attention. Golden retrievers, trained as therapy dogs, traveled to Orlando with their handlers to help comfort the victims and their families.
"I just thought that was so amazing," she said. "But, because I work in EMS, I thought to myself, 'What about the first responders who were running in when everyone else was running out?'"
Christie started researching how therapy dogs could help benefit an EMS organization and its personnel.
"I went to the executives in my region with AMR and proposed the idea of starting an internal therapy dog team for the AMR EMTs and paramedics," she said.
Christie's idea was met with open arms and AMR gave her the green light to start a pilot program. She went forward with the pilot program on her own and personally purchased her dog. After researching different breeds and their qualities and disposition, she ultimately chose a Goldendoodle named Saydee.
"The Goldendoodle is a mixed breed, but I chose that breed because of how smart they are – because of the poodle – and how compassionate, loving and loyal they are – because of the golden retriever."
Goldendoodles are also hypoallergenic, which eliminates the potential for allergy concerns.
"They also don't shed," Christie said. "So you're not going to have the issue of dog hair all over the station, and crews in uniform can even pet or play with the dogs and not have to go on the street and work and have dog hair all over them."
Christie got Saydee when she was about two months old and started training her immediately. With a personal trainer's help, Christie and Saydee attended a training session every week until she turned a year old. After 10 months of training, Saydee became a certified therapy dog.
The pair began locally, becoming a community partner by doing ambulance demos and going to fall festivals, “but we are also always there for the AMR EMTs and paramedics on a daily basis," Christie noted.
After Saydee completed her training, Robert Saunders, regional director at AMR, who is also based out of Amarillo, took an interest in the program. Saunders brought Bodhi, also a Goldendoodle, into the family, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Oct. 1, 2017
AMR's therapy dog pilot program had been up and running for about a year when the unimaginable happened.
On Oct. 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on 22,000 Las Vegas concert attendees from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Over 50 people were killed and more than 800 people were injured.
"When Oct. 1, 2017, happened, our executives told us to deploy the dogs," Christie recalled.
AMR had their Critical Incident Stress Management teams on site, but Christie said the dogs helped responders finally open up and talk about what they saw.
After the shooting, some personnel struggled to open up,” Christie recalled. “As soon as Saydee and Bodhi walked into those headquarters in Las Vegas, these people just melted. The people that wouldn't talk started talking and they got this emotional stress out. That's what they needed to do."
AMR executives, in Vegas to be there for those crews and personnel who responded to the tragedy, were overwhelmed by the response.
"You have to see it to believe it," Christie said. "And they did see it, and they do believe it. From that deployment, AMR said they were ready to invest in the program and it's now an official internal program within AMR."
The program is growing slowly, but surely. Right now, they have four puppies – ranging from four to six months old – in training.
"The training is absorbed better at a younger age. Everything you think that a therapy dog is going to encounter during its therapy dog work needs to be experienced before the dog reaches 12 to 14 months of age," Christie said.
There's a theory, Christie says, that a dog builds a comfort wall at about a year in age. Therefore, if the therapy dog does not experience or encounter everything necessary to do their work before that time, then the dog will not be a suitable therapy dog.
"If a therapy dog is working and they see a wheelchair for the first time, they'll bark at it because they haven't seen it before," she explained.
Once the puppies finish their training, they'll go through an official evaluation test and will then become certified. Once certified, their team of two will grow to a team of six.
The impact on first responders
This October, Saydee and Bodhi were in Las Vegas for the one-year anniversary of the shooting. Soon after, they were deployed to Panama City, Florida, in the wake of Hurricane Michael. The team was also requested after the Thousand Oaks, California shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill, but they were unable to travel due to the intense wildfires in Northern California.
"We're ramping up to get more therapy dogs so we can respond to every deployment request that's given to us," Christie explained.
As for the first responders who receive Saydee and Bodhi's help, Christie says their response has been amazing.
"When you see a smile on an EMT or paramedic's face, you know immediately that the dogs have done their job," she said.
When Saydee and Bodhi were deployed to Panama City for Hurricane Michael, crews were camped out in their ambulances while on relief.
"As soon as Saydee and Bodhi would turn the corner and see these guys and girls … there was just so much excitement. Some had been deployed for seven-plus days and many hadn't had that excitement feeling in a while. As soon as they saw these dogs and felt that emotion, it was a way for them to relieve stress they probably had been holding onto."
Christie said some responders were brought to tears when the dogs came up to them.
"It’s almost hard to put into words just how amazing it is to be able to do this," she said. "When you see your dog pick up on a complete stranger's emotions, and they walk over to be there for that person in that exact moment when they need it, it just pulls at your heartstrings. It's a flood of emotions, but it's so fulfilling to be able to do."
A new generation of therapy dogs
After putting in a long day of emotional support, it's crucial for Saydee and Bodhi to debrief and relax after a long day at work.
During their deployment to Las Vegas one year after the shooting, Christie said the dogs stayed at a local kennel instead of boarding in the hotel rooms with their handlers.
"We feel like the kennel is a place for them to rest, eat and have their own private suite after an eight to 10-hour work day," she said.
One night, Christie received a call from the kennel. She was concerned one of the dogs had been injured, but the flustered kennel supervisor was finally able to explain that Saydee had escaped the crate separating her from Bodhi. The ongoing joke now, Christie says, is a nod to a famous tag line.
"What happens in Vegas, doesn't always stay in Vegas," she said. "And you go home with a pregnant dog."
All joking aside, Saydee and Bodhi – along with their puppies, who Christie hopes to train – will help comfort responders for years to come during the good and bad times. Their unwavering and dutiful commitment may be part of who they are, but these characteristics will pay dividends in regard to shedding light on the importance of addressing mental health in public safety.