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Therapy dog ‘on duty’: Sacramento Fire’s new support K-9 helps first responders

<i>KCRA</i><br/>Emily is already hard at work
Emily is already hard at work

By Melanie Wingo

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    SACRAMENTO, California (KCRA) — A K-9 recruit is now on duty with the Sacramento Fire Department.

“Emily” won’t be riding on engines out to calls, but she’ll provide critical help for first responders as they return home from those emergencies.

She’s the fire department’s first-ever support dog, specially trained through the intensive, Paws For Life K9 First Responder Program.

After going through a training regimen of his own, Sacramento Fire Deputy Chief Mike Taylor became Emily’s handler in May.

“Once I met her, and I learned about the program, it was just something I had to do,” Taylor said.

Emily is already hard at work, helping the people tasked with keeping our community safe.

“Every firefighter suffers things that are hard to let go,” Taylor said. “Your job is to make everything calm and let the citizens know, ‘We’ll make it right. We’re here to help.’ But that comes with packaging a lot inside.”

That’s where Emily comes in — fulfilling her job duties, including helping fire personnel with emotional intervention and diffusing tense situations.

“We want to be our best selves, mentally and physically for this community,” Taylor said. “The dogs just have that way of breaking that ice, and getting them to talk a little bit.”

Warfighter Overwatch, a first responder and veterans support group in Folsom, understands the importance of behavioral health programs like the one that brought Emily to the Sacramento Fire.

“We see them. We understand that they go through trauma and they may need help,” said the organization’s board chair, Danny O’Neel.

Warfighter Overwatch is pledging to support Emily’s placement with the department.

The group will make sure Emily’s daily needs are met, so she can help her first responder co-workers.

“From veterinarian services to chew toys, whatever it is to keep the dog happy and allow them to do the work, that is so vital they’re gonna be doing – helping our local heroes,” O’Neel said.

Through The Atlas Project, a newly-formed program named in honor of O’Neel’s therapy dog Atlas, Warfighter Overwatch is facilitating community involvement in caring for Emily’s needs.

A donation portal can be found on the organization’s website, or people can shop for supplies for Emily from an Amazon wish list the group created.

“The ability to help [Sacramento] Fire provide for these dogs is an honor, and something we’re absolutely willing to do and grateful to do,” O’Neel said.

Emily is the first of four therapy dogs that will be placed with Sacramento Fire. The Paws For Life K-9 First Responder Program rescues and trains the dogs.

In a social media post about the program, Sacramento Fire said:

“Dogs like Emily are rescued from high-intake shelters. Then, the dogs are placed in a prison training program where they work with incarcerated trainers and professionals. “Selected dogs with an aptitude for learning, and an innate ability to provide affection and comfort will then graduate from the Therapy Dog Program and be matched with a first-responder.” Now, a couple of months into her service, Emily is already making a difference with staff members and Taylor, too.

“As I listen to other stories or she helps others, it helps me process things. Things of my past,” he said. “I didn’t really receive her to help me but, I realize, she has.”

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