Therapy dogs bring relief for Conn. responders

Spartacus and Dascha will help treat and sooth responders who experience tragedies and stressful situations


New Haven Register

WEST HAVEN, Conn. — From here on out, if anything horrible happens in West Haven or there’s a troubling fire or accident, West Shore firefighters and victims alike will get help from a sweet, warm and furry source of comfort lifted straight from the Newtown playbook.

Their names are Spartacus and Dascha. They may drool a little, but they have big hearts.

Dascha and Spartacus work with a Milford-based volunteer group, K9 First Responders Inc., which on Tuesday conducted its fourth training session with the West Shore Fire Department.

“I get goosebumps” watching the dogs work, said West Shore Fire Chief Patrick Pickering before the training session at the Benham Hill Fire Station. “To put it into words is one thing, but to actually see it go on in front of you...”

Pickering called the dogs “a powerful tool,” both for use with victims and internally to help treat and sooth firefighters who experience tragedies and stressful situations.

Asked about the protocols for the dogs’ use, he said, “If you see a need, then there’s a need.”

Back in the days immediately following the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown was deluged with offers of assistance.

In the wake of the slayings of 20 first-graders and six educators, as well as the mother of shooter Adam Lanza, people from all over poured in to help — some accompanied by loving, playful and often deeply intuitive and empathetic therapy dogs.

As it turned out, the unconditional love and canine empathy provided by the dogs proved to be a deeply resonant source of comfort for some of the families who lost loved ones.

That prompted the parents of slain Sandy Hook first-grader Charlotte Bacon — whose brother, Guy, bonded tightly with one therapy dog that helped cushion the blow when the time came to return to school — to form their own organization, Charlotte’s Litter, to encourage the dogs’ use in the future.

JoAnn and Joel Bacon already had links to West Haven, home to the seaside “Where Angels Play” playground that the Sandy Ground Project built in their daughter’s memory last year.

Now they will have another one, as K9 First Responders, one of the partners of Charlotte’s Litter and its sister organization, Newtown Kindness, becomes a resource the West Shore department, one of the three fire departments serving parts of West Haven, can draw on at any time.

In general, one key in post-disaster Newtown was not to have reminders of the past.

But “crisis dogs were the exception,” K9 First Responders Executive Director Brad Cole — who handles Spartacus, a big, beautiful, 6-year-old, 125-pound Akita — explained to firefighters Tuesday morning.

Cole, who also responded with Spartacus after the April 25, 2014, slaying of Jonathan Law High School student Maren Sanchez, said that in that case, when school resumed, “the students came in and went right for the dogs.”

He said he still sees three people from Newtown even 2½ years later — and Spartacus “was invited to the Jonathan Law senior prom.”

Cole described what he and fellow volunteer colleague Steve Berko — a Sandy Hook resident who handles Dascha, a 7-year-old, purebred Rottweiler — do as a “all-hazard psychological response team” that may be the first ones to encounter someone in need of help or treatment.

He compared them to EMTs, who, while not surgeons, can recognize when there is an issue and begin to help until people in need can see a doctor.

“We’re an adjunct resource,” Cole said. “If you need us, we’re there.”

K9 First Responders also works with first responders in Milford, Fairfield, Boston and with the Yale-New Haven Health System, Cole said.

West Shore Deputy Chief Stephen Scafariello, will serve as acting chief when Pickering retires later this month, asked Cole specifically how the dogs might be of use to firefighters.

Cole said his colleagues and he “take our volunteer jobs very seriously” and “if you have a bad day ... we’re there” to provide confidential assistance.

Their team includes a trained therapist in Kim, another Sandy Hook resident who also is a retired Department of Correction worker and former Newtown dispatcher and Sandy Hook firefighter who prefered not to give her last name.

“During Sandy Hook, I took care of the cops,” said Kim, who lives down the street from Charlotte Bacon’s grandparents. She also does work with employee assistance programs.

“The dogs really make a difference,” she said.

West Shore firefighter William Seward, an eight-year veteran firefighter who was a first responder for an additional eight years with American Medical Response, likes the idea of adding the dogs as another tool.

“I think it’d be good for us, doing what we do and seeing some of the things that we see,” Seward said.

“I can’t talk to my wife” about some of the things he has seen because of privacy issues, Seward said. “This is an outlet for us. ... Everybody likes to pet a puppy” and “they’re there for the families.”

Berko said he got involved in K9 First Responders when he met Cole the day after the Sandy Hook shootings.

“It morphed into a lot more than we thought it would be,” he said.

Ken Murdoch of Newtown Kindness said that in the days immediately following the Sandy Hook tragedy, when a “child-friendly space” was set up for victim families, “inside that room for the first time we introduced the therapy dogs.”

The Bacons could not immediately be reached for comment. But Murdoch, who also is a volunteer and a Newtown resident who works by day as vice president of IT and building operations at Save the Children in Fairfield, said “we had tremendous results with the children.”

In that “child-friendly space,” the victims “actually returned to being children again,” he said.

“These dogs are God-given” and “they have a tremendous ability to grasp what’s going on” around them, Murdoch said.

Newtown Kindness and the work of Charlotte’s Litter are supported in part by a shorefront Walkathon that will take place for the third time Sept. 19 in West Haven.

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