Calif. therapy dog provides support to AMR paramedics

Baxter, a Goldendoodle, visits with medics in between calls, offering comfort amid the chaos, one provider said


Karen Kucher
The San Diego Union-Tribune

As COVID-19 cases were surging late last year, San Diego paramedic Candra Cooper took on an intense temporary assignment: For three months, she lived and worked in Imperial County, shuttling patients to and from a 60-bed makeshift care facility set up in a college gymnasium.

Working grueling 24-hour shifts, the 28-year-old transported patients from the overwhelmed hospital to the temporary site — and rushed some back to the hospital's intensive care unit when their condition worsened.

The 2-year-old dog — a mix of poodle and Golden retriever known as a Goldendoodle — routinely visits with American Medical Response paramedics and dispatchers after emergency calls, both at the company's Kearny Mesa office and near ambulance bays at local hospitals.
The 2-year-old dog — a mix of poodle and Golden retriever known as a Goldendoodle — routinely visits with American Medical Response paramedics and dispatchers after emergency calls, both at the company's Kearny Mesa office and near ambulance bays at local hospitals. (Photo/GMR Therapy Dog Team)

She got to know the doctors, the patients. She knew who lived, who died.

Getting away from it was hard, even on her days off since everyone was told to isolate to minimize exposure to the deadly virus.

"You are just kind of constantly surrounded by COVID and sickness, and it is the focus of every day, every minute," she said.

One thing helped bring a feeling of normalcy: the furry face of Baxter the support dog.

The 2-year-old dog — a mix of poodle and Golden retriever known as a Goldendoodle — routinely visits with American Medical Response paramedics and dispatchers after emergency calls, both at the company's Kearny Mesa office and near ambulance bays at local hospitals.

His job is to help first responders decompress and find some comfort. In the words of AMR operations manager Paul Forney: " Baxter is just a moment of calm."

When crews were deployed to Imperial Valley and Costa Mesa to help take care of COVID patients, Baxter went for visits, too. When he's working, he's decked out in a therapy dog vest with a tiny badge hanging from his neck.

Even on more routine days in San Diego, Cooper said she finds Baxter a welcome sight as she sits in her rig after running a call and catches up on paperwork.

"It just gives you a chance to come out and get grounded again," Cooper said. "Have a moment of happiness inside of the chaos. It is so hard to be upset when you are with a puppy — he reminds us how much support is out there."

When she was in Imperial County from mid-December until early March — missing Christmas and New Year's with family and friends — Baxter helped ease homesickness she and others were feeling. "We were feeling really disconnected and having that normalcy of Baxter — he comes in and lifts everyone's spirits and gives a chance for everybody to gather around him and feel like a team, to have that normalcy," she said.

An AMR office in Texas acquired its first therapy dog in 2016 after managers heard positive things about the dogs being used to aid first responders in the aftermath of the deadly Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. Baxter was the 20th dog certified in the program, said Kevin Mercer, AMR's director of operations in San Diego.

Baxter cost about $2,200 to acquire and his training was another $1,500. During his off hours, Baxter lives with Mercer and his wife, Julie, in Poway with two other dogs.

A good therapy dog needs to be confident, curious about everything and willing to try new things, said Shannon Anderson, owner of Total K9 Training, who worked with Baxter for more than a year.

Baxter was a quick learner, has good composure and doesn't startle easily, Anderson said. As an added bonus, he doesn't shed and is hypoallergenic.

Mercer said he's well worth the expense. "I can say that there are employees that come to visit Baxter each day they work," Mercer said. "And on several occasions he has spent time with our employees as they decompress after a stressful call."

With his big mop of soft fur, gentle nature and always-wagging tail, Baxter makes himself available to anyone he meets. On a recent afternoon at AMR, he wandered into a classroom where paramedics were listening to a training lecture.

As he walked around the room, several medics reached over to pet him. One moved her sandwich away from the edge of her desk after Baxter gave it an appraising sniff. He moved along and stopped for another medic who gave him a long hug.

All in a day's work.

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(c)2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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