PTSD support dog joins Fla. county public safety department
The golden retriever, Rucker, is trained to provide emotional support for EMS providers and other first responders
Michael Moore Jr.
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.
MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Manatee County Public Safety's newest employee always comes to work in a good mood. But how can you tell? Turns out, he's got a mannerism that's a dead giveaway: his tail wags.
Rucker, a golden retriever who turns 2 years old next month, isn't your average Public Safety team member (he's furry, for starters), but if you ask around the office, he may be just as important. Trained by Valor Service Dogs, Rucker is Public Safety's new post-traumatic stress disorder facility dog.
"He has a tough job: Make everyone happy," said James Crutchfield who, in addition to being Emergency Medical Services Chief for Manatee County also doubles as Rucker's primary handler.
Paramedics and first responders have a difficult job, according to Crutchfield, and Rucker's job is to try and make that a little more manageable by helping them cope with the intense stress that comes with frequently working in crisis situations. He is the newest component of the Public Safety Peer Support program, where Public Safety employees have received additional training to speak to their peers directly regarding on the job stressors as well as stressors at home. Rucker can help ease some of that tension before the conversations even begin — just having him around helps, said Crutchfield.
Public Safety personnel looking for help in unconventional places is ultimately what led Rucker to an office job.
"I'm super passionate about doing what's right for employees, and this seemed like a shot in the dark, but also like it might help. It's so cool to see it happen," said Crutchfield.
But can having a dog around really help? If you ask Crutchfield and Public Safety Director Jacob Saur, the answer is a resounding "yes."
"It's pretty cool for our department. Just the amount of stress he helps reduce is enormous. He's been great so far. He's welcomed by all the employees, all the employees love him. He's treated like an employee, comes in 8 to 5 or whenever we need him," said Saur.
But Rucker, who started coming into the office at the beginning of November, according to Saur, isn't your average dog, either — he's gone through extensive training with Valor Service Dogs, a Tampa-based nonprofit organization that helps wounded veterans and first responders regain independence, return to civilian life and cope with PTSD via service animals.
Because of his training, which Rucker began as a 2-month-old pup, he can recognize physical cues that tend to accompany anxiety and PTSD and can help calm then. He does this by nestling his head in the lap of someone who needs support, by using his head to distract and soothe someone experiencing twitching, crying or fidgeting and by using his paws to break up hands that are anxiously clenched together.
"He gives you the ability to recognize in real time that maybe you are tapping nervously or experiencing symptoms of anxiety that you might not even realize in the moment," said Carol Lansford, executive director and director of training at Valor Service Dogs.
Not all dogs are qualified to be service animals. But Rucker was the "perfect candidate" for this job in particular because of some "unique qualities," according to Lansford.
"Rucker loves everyone. A lot of service dogs become very monogamous with one single handler, but Rucker loves everybody he comes in contact with and will happily take care of everybody," said Lansford.
Turns out, that's exactly what they were looking for: a good boy who comes to work every day with his tail wagging, ready to make everybody's day better.
First responders have a high rate of suicide and PTSD — a survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6% had attempted suicide, which is about more than 10 times the rate in the general population, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services — so the impact of programs like Peer Support and a PTSD therapy dog can't be understated, according to Crutchfield.
"I'm super passionate about mental health and first responders. This is a very emotional field and it's a tough job, so it's cool to see Rucker take charge," said Crutchfield. "I think people expect first responders to just be cool, calm and collected all the time, but that takes a toll on people emotionally."
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