California City Gets ‘Comfort Dog’ to Soothe 911 Dispatchers

Service animals have become common inside emergency call centers throughout the country in recent years. Police departments bring service animals in for visits at call centers after dispatchers have dealt with traumatic events in their communities.

by Matthew Pera, The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif. / December 5, 2019

(TNS) - For 911 dispatcher Lynette Starnes, the most chilling calls are the ones that come in from locations she can’t track.

“A stabbing, a homicide, a medical aid, we’re trained to get through that stuff,” she said. “But if I don’t know where you’re at, we can’t help you, and that is my personal biggest stress.”

Starnes has learned to weather the pressures of the job after more than three decades as a dispatcher for the San Rafael Police Department. But sometimes, she said, it’s tough to shake the anxiety.

That’s what Blue is there to help with.

Blue, the department’s new “comfort dog,” reported for duty for the first time last month. The 2-year-old Labrador and golden retriever mix was trained as a service animal by the San Rafael-based Guide Dogs for the Blind. But after several months working for a person with a vision impairment in Salem, Oregon, the organization decided Blue’s personality was better suited for a different role.

“This is his job,” dispatcher Anndora Lee said on a recent morning, motioning to Blue, who laid quietly on his plush dog bed inside the police department’s emergency call center. “He’s really good at it.”

Feeding him treats, Lee showed off Blue’s most endearing tricks: he gives handshakes and hugs.

“He just kind of hangs out,” Lee said. “And if we’re busy and ignoring him, he’s fine.”

Service animals have become common inside emergency call centers throughout the country in recent years, said April Heinze, a director for the National Emergency Number Association. Often, she said, police departments bring service animals in for visits at call centers after dispatchers have dealt with traumatic events in their communities.

“More and more research is showing that therapy animals are very beneficial when it comes to high-stress individuals,” she said.

According to Ryan Dedmon, a psychologist who trains dispatchers around the country through the 911 Training Institute, emergency call centers often struggle with employee retention. That’s because “dispatchers suffer from things like compassion fatigue and burnout,” he said.

“People don’t call 911 when they’re having a good day. They’re reporting the most exigent of circumstances, and dispatchers are the first point of contact receiving those calls,” Dedmon said. “The accumulation of stress in working that job is nearly insurmountable.”

Since Blue joined the force last month, he has lightened the mood for not only the dispatchers, but also the rest of the San Rafael Police Department staff, said the city’s police chief, Diana Bishop.

“It’s so nice to have this guy around,” Bishop said. “He’s very calming.”

When Blue isn’t lounging inside the call center, he’s usually roaming around the city with his handler, Lynn Murphy.

Murphy, the police department’s mental health outreach specialist, combs the city each day, working with people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues and offering to connect them with services. Blue has helped Murphy connect with people who may have otherwise been unwilling to speak with her, she said.

On a recent morning, Murphy approached a homeless woman who had typically avoided interaction.

“I had Blue with me and her face just lit up,” Murphy said. “She started petting the dog, and I’ve never seen her so grounded and in the moment.”

The interaction lasted only a few minutes, but it represented a small step toward connecting the woman with housing and mental health services, Murphy said.

“It was a really lovely, in-the-moment conversation, and that’s one of the awesome things about pets,” she said. “For them, it’s all about being in the moment, and that translates into their interactions with people.”

Blue is the first animal trained by Guide Dogs for the Blind that has gone on to work for a police department, said the organization’s dog placement manager, James Dress.

Because dogs working for people with visual impairments must maintain sharp focus, it’s common for some dogs that have completed the training to undergo what Dress calls “career changes.” Often, those dogs work with search and rescue teams, or act as service animals to people with other disabilities, he said.

Guide Dogs decided to shift Blue’s role because “he was food distracted, which was challenging for someone who has vision loss,” Dress said. But his calm demeanor and willingness to give affection made him a perfect fit for the police department, he said.

“This is the first time we’ve placed a career-change dog in this kind of a role, and we are very excited about it,” Dress said. “Based on our experience with Blue, this has been a fantastic program so far, and we’d like to see it expand.”

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©2019 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

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