Column: A facility dog for Sudbury is essential – not a needless distraction

First responders are humans – not robots. Often, we bear the weight of these calls for a long time after the call ends

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By Alison Archambault

Coun. Michael Vagnini’s comments in The Sudbury Star (‘Column: Facility dog not worth the effort, Vagnini says,’ Feb. 22) about employing a facility dog demonstrated a lack of appreciation and lack of knowledge about one of the most emotionally and physically challenging jobs out there.

Many things were missing from Coun. Vagnini’s comments, beginning with failing to thank Sudbury’s firefighters for their service. On behalf of your brother and sister first responders across the country, thank you, Greater Sudbury Fire Services for your dedication and keeping your community safe.

I’m a first responder. I’ve suffered occupational stress injuries (PTSD) several times in my career; some healed in the short term, some of them have spanned decades.

I work for a trauma-informed fire service that understands PTSD. We have an officer team trained on interventions and considerable resources are allocated by the wonderful community we serve to support the mental health of fire service members.

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It is an honour and privilege for first responders to support our community members when they call for help. First responders are humans – not robots. Often, we bear the weight of these calls for a long time after the call ends.

A screening test, as Coun. Vagnini suggests, couldn’t have predicted how incidents in my personal life would collide with my first responder life, nor how I would react to arriving on scenes to hold dead children in my arms, comforting devastated family members following a fatal car accident, or seeing a school friend of my child be the focus of our life-saving efforts.

It’s often not a single call, rather, the cumulative effect call after call after call, month after month, year after year, that has devastating impacts on first responder mental health.

Coun. Vagnini’s responses ignore industry studies that recognize first responder mental health and the likelihood of becoming impacted by PTSD is unique to every individual and largely not predictable.

Our society has made progress towards open conversations around mental health in recent years; Coun. Vagnini’s suggestion that firefighters and Greater Sudbury Fire Services could be stronger if members were pre-screened better is diminishing and cruel.

Specially trained facility dogs for first responders at risk of operational stress injuries due to trauma are, well, specially trained. Over their two years of screening, training, and certification by an Assistance Dogs International-accredited training organization, more than a dozen people are involved in curating each animal’s breeding, health, training, evaluation, assessment, and placement to ensure they can provide a unique intervention to the teams they support.

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Specially trained facility dogs for first responders at risk of operational stress can recognize trauma anxiety before members can identify “what’s wrong.” The animals can serve as an “early warning” system that makes it possible for human medical teams to intervene much earlier, reducing pain and suffering for the firefighter and their family.

For first responders with active occupational stress injuries, specially trained facility dogs provide in situ resource supports to individual firefighters and collectively to post-event debriefs where traumatic stress can dig in and fester.

I have raised and trained 12 service dogs for National Service Dogs (nsd.on.ca), the organization providing Greater Sudbury Fire Service’s facility dog. My current service puppy – National Service Dogs’ Ember – spends considerable time around the fire hall where I work. From a tender age, Ember has been at the fire hall, interacting with the members during duty shifts and around after calls; learning how to behave around members, participating in debriefs, and becoming skilled at recognizing signs of stress and trauma.

While not destined to support Greater Sudbury Fire Services once she completes advanced training, Ember will become a valuable asset as part of an intervention team.

The decision to grant Greater Sudbury Fire a facility dog involves deep conversations with NSD on the type of support the fire department needs, how the animal will be cared for, handler training, on-site interviews, site visits and a commitment to ongoing follow up reporting to NSD and recertification of the team once it is working.

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NSD is widely respected across Canada for the team’s visionary work to support veterans and first responders impacted by PTSD, with a client-first focus. NSD’s client-first advocacy approach is unique in the industry. With the support of mental health professionals, an internationally recognized, bred-for-purpose dog breeding program, and a skilled training team, NSD ensures that every facility dog meets the highest certification standards to provide life-saving and life-changing interventions.

Facility dogs are specifically chosen for their resiliency, calm, relaxed demeanor, and low drive. Their handlers are provided training to ensure they are sensitive to, and provide for, the dog’s ongoing physical and mental health, ensuring the dogs live a meaningful, healthy life.

Therapy dogs and well-loved family dogs warm our hearts and can be insightful into our emotions, but they don’t have special training to provide life-saving interventions.

The assertion that Greater Sudbury Fire Service’s facility dog will have four handlers, a number suggested to cause emotional trauma to the dog and detract human resources from the fire service, is absurd.

Firstly, Greater Sudbury’s facility dog will have two handlers responsible for the dog’s day-to-day care, training and scheduling; a primary and backup.

Secondly, the practice of multiple handlers is typical across North America. It is a practice accredited service dog organizations ensure is built into the animal’s working life to ensure if a handler becomes unwell, must relocate, etc, the dog is bonded to another handler and the negative impacts of one handler departing are minimized.

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Unlike cherished family dogs that have varying levels of emotional resiliency, working dogs are screened and trained from a young age to ensure they can support multiple handlers.

I’m saddened that Coun. Vagnini and others think that a facility dog would be a distraction and waste for Greater Sudbury Fire Service and the community as a whole. I think the action is the least a grateful community can do to support the fire service members that have been there for them whenever they’ve dialed 911 and stood beside them during some of the most terrifying times of their lives.

Alison Archambault is a volunteer firefighter, the director of marketing, communications and sales for Calgary Zoo, past chair of National Service Dogs and current puppy-raiser for Ember.

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