Therapy Dogs Could Be a Key Support for Mental Wellness

In the April 2021 issue of EMS World, researchers point out that therapy dogs could be a key support for mental wellness in high-stress professions. There are no textbooks that describe or teach first responders how to react to the trauma they see every day. When a person constantly interacts with and cares for sick and vulnerable individuals, they may get overwhelmed and depressed. Self-care can be a challenge when a person is depressed and traumatized. Some people try to ignore it and just go on with their work. However, this isn't always a successful approach. Researchers are finding that therapy dogs offer many mental health benefits to workers in high-stress jobs.

Stress on the Job Leads to Mental Health Problems

Many people who work as first responders experience a mental health disorder at some point during their career. These issues often stem from a severe traumatic event, such as witnessing a homicide's aftermath. Suicide is elevated among emergency medical services (EMS) personnel. Depression, alcohol and substance abuse disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety are also alarmingly common in this profession and related professions. Of EMS personnel surveyed, 34% report a PTSD diagnosis. This is 10 times higher than the general population's rate of PTSD. Traumatic events on the job have resulted in 84% of EMS workers developing at least one mental health disorder. More than 55% of EMS workers reported that if they voiced their mental health struggles to their supervisors, they were treated differently from their coworkers who stayed silent about such issues. This stigma makes the stress of the job worse.

Therapy Dogs as a Solution for On-the-job Stress

Therapy dogs could be a solution for the stress endured by EMS workers. One paramedic who works in North Carolina reported that many of their coworkers took their own lives as a result of on-the-job stress. The stress takes a physical and mental toll. This person discovered that reporting the mental health challenges is filled with stigma. Their supervisor told them to "suck it up" and that nice people won't last long as EMS workers. That led the person to search for a creative way to help people cope. In 2019, they introduced therapy dogs at their agency.

How Therapy Dogs Help EMS Workers

The training academy brings 10 to 15 employees in at a time. The dog handlers explain how mental illness and canine therapy work. If an employee wanted to participate, they got to meet the dogs. One out of 15 employees invited to participate declined out of a fear of dogs. The employees petted and played with the dogs during the training session. Many of the employees asked when the dogs would return, as this was just a one-time session.

Dogs Visit During Specific Events

One way canine therapy dogs can help is during the debriefing of a traumatic event. In the North Carolina EMS agency, employees requested a visit from the therapy dogs after witnessing a pediatric trauma. The dogs are different breeds and ages. All have been fully vetted and trained as certified therapy dogs. The group found that large dogs are great for pressure therapy. The weight of the dog on a person's lap is comforting, much like using a weighted blanket can be calming.

Canine Therapy on a Daily Basis

Some EMS agencies have full-time personnel who stay at a station. In those cases, the dogs might remain there permanently. Some dogs go home with an employee at night. In other cases, dogs are brought in after critical calls. Some EMS agencies bring in dogs for a few hours a day. In some situations, EMS agencies set up two-week therapy sessions with the dogs. This is like an intensive outpatient therapy session. Counselors and dogs are available for EMS workers.

How EMS Workers Rate Canine Therapy

The North Carolina EMS workers were asked to complete an anonymous survey before and after receiving canine therapy. After the therapy, 80% of the respondents reported reduced stress after canine therapy sessions. Most of them said that they would like to see the dogs every day or every week. Since conducting the survey, the EMS agency has continued using the therapy dogs on a regular basis. The agency plans to continue offering canine therapy as a free on-the-job benefit to all of its first responders. The local fire and police department employees can also take advantage of the canine therapy.

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