Next month, FHE Health will announce the winner of the first annual “First Responder Paws Therapy Dog Award” from a pack of more than 40 canine applicants nationwide. Dean Moreno will be leading the selection process. He is the founder of First Responders Pack Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve first responder mental health by helping more agencies and communities acquire therapy dogs. Moreno, a fire fighter for more than 20 years, became a tireless advocate for this cause after he found healing with the help of his own therapy dog, a yellow lab named Oscar.
Today, Moreno is a certified PEER counselor, and he and Oscar make regular visits to the first responders in our Shatterproof FHE Health program. The dedicated team also shows up in times of crisis to comfort first responders and others on the scene, such as when the Surfside tragedy occurred. Moreno and Oscar were there in the immediate aftermath and in the days that followed, as a calming and supportive presence while emergency crews worked round the clock to find survivors of the condominium collapse.
We recently had the opportunity to talk with Moreno about his work training and handling therapy dogs for first responders. Our discussion included some of the qualities that Moreno looks for when vetting a prospective therapy dog for first responders, as well as some of the unique ways that these dogs benefit first responders in particular.
The Role of a First Responder Therapy Dog
What unique role does a therapy dog fulfill for first responders? Moreno named three functions:
- Breaking the barriers to help and treatment – Many first responders have trouble admitting they’re struggling or asking for help because of the nature of their profession, Moreno explained. A therapy dog “lowers their guard” and helps them see “it’s okay to not feel okay or to say, ‘I need help.’” Often a first responder won’t want to talk to a person, but they’ll “want to talk to the dog,” Moreno observed. “But if you bring a dog, it lowers their guard and allows that communication to start and then it’s up to the handler. If the handler has the proper training for peer support, they can open the door and start talking.”
- Providing non-judgmental, support – “When someone wants to talk to the dog, they sit there and have that conversation knowing they can unload their feelings without being judged,” Moreno said. “People at Shatterproof FHE Health lie on the ground with Oscar and have 10-minute conversation … Oscar will go to that person in distress and let them pet him, whereas some people he will ignore all together.”
- Bridging the gap with the community – Therapy dogs can also play an important role in community outreach, as a bridge between first responders and the communities they serve. Moreno, who attends many of these events with Oscar, said he was recently at a gathering with children: “It’s amazing what happens.” Those positive interactions can build trust.
Traits to Look for in a Prospective Therapy Dog for First Responders
The disposition of the dog, its temperament and personality, is key. “We want the dog to be friendly and approachable,” Moreno said.
“It’s also very important for them to have had exposure at an early age to different environments and to different sounds and people,” Moreno continued. He explained that in
a first responder environment especially, a dog needs to be used to the loud blaring of police and fire truck sirens. (Most dogs howl when they hear sirens as a stress response.) The dog also needs to be comfortable approaching people in firefighter and bunker gear.
Exposure to these environments at a youngish age can help acclimate a dog, “so that it gets used to these sounds,” Moreno said. Still, “not all dogs are meant to be therapy dogs,” he said. As illustration, he shared that he has three labs, and “one of them is terrified by everything, including the garbage can.” In other words, a good therapy dog will stay calm in a stressful situation—mainly because they have the right temperament.
“Another trait to look for is whether a dog is able to get along with other dogs or other service animals (not just dogs),” Moreno said. That’s because there typically will be other dogs present at a big active scene like Hurricane Ian … You don’t want to bring stressed dogs into a stressful situation—you defeat the purpose of what you’re doing.” Similarly, if you take your dog to a community event where other emotional support animals are present (guinea pigs, alpacas, etc.) the dog naturally may take some interest but should be able to stay calm.
Training Requirements for First Responder Therapy Dogs
“Unfortunately, there are no standard therapy dog guidelines,” Moreno said, but mentioned some basic requirements. The dog should be at least one year or close to that, so out of the puppy stage but young enough to receive that crucial formative exposure to first responder settings. The dog needs to be up to date on their immunizations and vet records.
It is also recommended that the dog pass the “American Kennel Club Good Citizen” test. This means they know basic obedience rules, like how to walk on a leash, climb stairs, get on an elevator, be calm when out in public, and not react when their leash is handed to a stranger.
Once a dog has passed the AKC Canine Good Citizen test, they meet with a certified evaluator like Moreno. When he’s vetting prospective therapy dogs for first responders, he likes to meet the dog and their handler first, and from there, gauge what to work on.
The Benefits of Therapy Dogs for First Responder PTSD
Recent research has revealed the many benefits of therapy dogs for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These witnessed benefits have included reductions in stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, better mood, and even increased productivity.
When we asked Moreno why therapy dogs are so effective for PTSD in first responders, he was quick to reference his own experience:
I originally got Oscar for my personal struggles and after realizing those benefits, was inspired to do what I do now—and it just kind of morphed into this giant thing.
It’s medically proven that dogs lower heart rate, just by our touching them, and I see it all the time from people’s smiles … and it helps with the stress. People know they’re not being judged.
It’s hard for a first responder to say, “That call bothered me.” I don’t know if it distracts people or lowers the machoism, but Oscar opens that door time and time again. When I walk in with Oscar, immediately people’s body language changes. They sit up.
Real-Life Examples of the Positive Impact of Therapy Dogs
Moreno shared some real-life examples of how Oscar’s presence and support had proven transformational in the lives of first responders. In one case, Moreno ran into another fire fighter in a peer support class. The man said to Moreno, “You don’t recognize me, do you?” That is when he shared that he had been a member of the emergency task force that had responded to the Surfside tragedy. The man said he was there at ground zero for almost two weeks.
“When I met Oscar, that was the first time I smiled in almost two weeks,” the man said. That experience inspired him to start a therapy dog program at his department.
At another event, Moreno met an Israeli man who recognized Oscar immediately: “I know him—Oscar!” he exclaimed. The man shared that two years earlier he had served on a task force from Israel that responded to Surfside, which is where he met Oscar.
“You don’t know the impact that you make on someone from just 5-10 minutes of meeting them. At those times, they’re often in such an emotional state, too.”
During just a few years, Moreno and Oscar have touched countless lives, many of them through these seemingly small encounters, and Moreno has helped three people from Shatterproof FHE Health bring therapy dogs to their own departments. From the sound of it, he and Oscar are just getting started.
The deadline for applications for the First Responder Paws Therapy Dog Award is November 8, 2023, after which 10 finalists will be announced on November 20. The final winner will be announced on December 4..