Therapy Animals In The Comm. Center

Becca Barrus

Becca Barrus


While humanity overall is a pretty mixed bag, one of the things we’ve done right is domesticating animals. There’s a reason so many people have pets even though they require the work of care and feeding. Even the most hard-hearted villains would be hard pressed to stay stony in the face of a cheerful dog or a cuddly kitten. If asked to articulate why, most people would simply say that interacting with animals just feels good.

Science generally agrees that humans get positive benefits from interacting with fuzzy animals; for example, the simple act of petting an animal releases many hormones in the human body, among which is phenylethylamine, a chemical that heightens mood. Many therapists encourage their mentally ill (depressed, anxious) patients to have a pet, as its presence will produce feelings of comfort and happiness in its owner.

But why do humans like having animals around as sidekicks? One theory—Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis is the technical term—claims that early human survival was partly dependent on signals from the animals around them. For example, if rabbits in the brush were stressed, it probably meant that a snake or other predator was nearby. Conversely, if the rabbit were calm, no predators were present, which meant that the humans could relax too. Thus, the biophilia hypothesis suggests that if modern humans see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this may send feelings of safety, security, and well-being to our brains.

Considering the vast spectrum of humans interacting with animals through history, we’ve only just begun to recognize the true mental benefits of having animals around. In the last couple decades, therapy animals have been used to alleviate boredom, loneliness, and stress in hospitals and assisted living facilities. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that people have begun figuring out that that kind of therapy can be applied in other settings, such as the emergency communication center.

A growing number of centers are using therapy animals—mostly dogs, although cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and even horses can be used—to bring a ray of sunshine and a surge of oxytocin to their emergency dispatchers. They have enthusiastically agreed to share about their individual experiences and give advice to anyone looking to start a similar program in their center.

A quick note: Therapy animals and service animals serve different purposes. Service animals typically live with their owners and help them with a specific task (turning on lights, getting medicine, detecting oncoming seizures, etc.), while therapy dogs only interact with patients at a specified time and don’t require as much intensive training. Often, therapy dogs work in close conjunction with physical and occupational therapists in hospitals and rehab centers. And while they don’t require intensive training, therapy dogs still must be trained not to jump, bite, or pull on their leashes and follow basic commands (such as “sit,” down,” and “stay”).

Canines for Christ

Larry Randolph didn’t even own a dog when he got inspired to begin a dog ministry. In July 2007, he borrowed his sister’s dog and started bringing it to people in need as a hobby that then grew into something bigger. Canines for Christ now has over 900 volunteers bringing over a thousand dogs to veterans hospitals, nursing homes, special needs facilities, and more in 35 U.S. states.

The mission of Canines for Christ is “letting Christ’s love shine through us and our canines as His disciples when we visit people who need love, hope, and compassion that only God’s message can provide. And we want them to know that God loves them. Millions of people have been touched by this saving message as we bring God’s light of love into the darkness.”

Chaplain Ron Leonard, a retired military man, met Randolph in 2012 and trained his dog Molly with the American Kennel Club to be an official therapy dog volunteer. Since then, Molly and Leonard have made over 4,000 visits.

Around 2016, Canines for Christ therapy dogs began visiting 911 centers, starting in Nashville (Tennessee, USA). As they continued to visit the center, interest grew and the program began broadcasting their interest in reaching more emergency dispatchers in more centers. In all, Leonard estimates that they regularly visit about 35 emergency response centers in the United States and have a relationship with even more. Leonard, who is based in Tennessee, is a member of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Tennessee Emergency Number Association (TENA).

Canine for Christ volunteers have provided emotional comfort and aid in the aftermath of notable mass shootings such as the Parkland, Florida (USA), shooting in 2018 and the Dayton, Ohio (USA), shooting in 2019.

K-9’s On Call Support Dogs

K-9’s On Call Support Dogs is a newer program than Canines For Christ, but it began in a similar manner. Duke and Karen Kimbrough began their program in Austin, Texas (USA), in 2017 when Duke retired from working 40 years as an emergency medicine physician in local hospital emergency rooms in Austin and with Austin-Travis County EMS. Karen has done pet therapy work in hospitals for 20 years; she started out in nursing homes, then added children’s and general hospitals and school reading programs. Once Duke retired, he decided to join Karen in her work. One of Duke’s colleagues in EMS heard they were interested in starting a therapy dogs program and got the Kimbroughs in touch with people at the 911 call center.

“We were very, very lucky to have so many people interested,” Karen said. “And we were lucky that Duke had those connections.”

The program began small—just Karen, Duke, and their dog Texsi at first—and grew to include friends and colleagues. Now Karen says that they’re getting a significant increase in volunteers. They try to find people who have backgrounds in either medicine or nursing or people who understand the business of 911 and first responders, like Chris Parker, who, along with her dog Ruby Shoes, has been involved since nearly the beginning.

K-9’s On Call Support Dogs works closely with Austin’s Combined Transportation, Emergency, and Communications Center (CTECC), bringing dogs to visit the emergency dispatchers during their shifts. Karen said that the program operates under CTECC’s rules, policies, and regulations, which include stringent background checks of those who volunteer.

Stephanie McClintock, Acting General Manager of CTECC, works closely with Karen in coordinating visits. The two of them communicate regularly. When McClintock moved into the position two years ago, the visits from K-9’s On Call Support Dogs had already been established by her predecessor.

“It’s been very smooth,” McClintock said, despite rumors in the beginning that someone on the floor was allergic to dogs. McClintock continued to communicate with managers to ensure that everyone was fine; there have been no issues with allergies. McClintock checks in on a regular basis to make sure that the dogs aren’t distracting.

“Overall it’s been a very positive experience for the emergency dispatchers,” McClintock said. “When I’m here and see the dogs on the floor, everybody is nothing but smiles. Sometimes they’re on the floor, crawling around with the dogs, hugging them, telling dog stories.”

The therapy dogs come into the center about two to four times a week, making sure to visit all three shifts, including the night shift. CTECC houses EMS, fire, and law enforcement emergency dispatchers for City of Austin, Travis County, and Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority, as well as the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) and city and county EOC.

What do the emergency dispatchers think of their furry visitors?

“I love dogs,” said Katie Ferrara, CTECC calltaker. “I have a dog, who I obviously can’t bring into work, so therapy dogs are the next best thing.”

Ferrara continued by saying that the dogs help alleviate the stress of taking 911 calls; it’s nice to focus on something else for a minute.

Kathy Yarbrough, a senior dispatcher who has been with CTECC for 25 years, agreed.

“It’s really a little break,” Yarbrough said. “You get two or three minutes where you’re not thinking about the horrible things people do to each other.”

She had good things to say about the volunteers who bring the therapy dogs in as well—she said that they’re sweet and will ask the emergency dispatchers how their day is going. The volunteers are also sensitive to people who don’t necessarily want to be visited at that moment. These are the emergency dispatchers who will say “No thank you” or not turn around when the dogs come walking down the row of consoles.

Currently, the K-9’s On Call Support Dogs aren’t on the call list to be notified after a big event to help emergency dispatchers de-stress. However, if the dogs happen to be in the center the day after a big event or a particularly hard call, they’ll take extra care to spend time with the people involved. Karen also mentioned that they do respond with more frequent visits to the emergency dispatchers during a crisis, like the Austin bomber or when there are flooding issues.

“When the EOC is open, we make sure to visit those folks taking care of the crisis,” she said.

Mayra Toro, Assistant Manager for Austin Police Department (housed in CTECC), said the visits create a different atmosphere for the time they’re there.

“It brings a level of excitement to employees,” she said. “Then, after the dogs walk away, the dispatchers and calltakers are right back to their phones and the next call.”

St John Ambulance (NT) Inc.

Lucy McLennan, Duty Manager Emergency Communications Centre (DMECC) for St John Ambulance (NT) Inc. in Darwin (Northern Territory, Australia), was the catalyst for getting therapy dogs to visit her center. She was aware that some communication centers, hospitals, schools, and other workplaces were starting to introduce therapy options for their staff and thought that it could work for her center. She approached her manager, Craig Garraway, with the idea, and he was immediately supportive, encouraging her to pursue the project. McLennan did her homework and found Kristy Teunissen at Mind Your Paws, who was enthusiastic about the idea.

Similar to CTECC, the issue of allergies was raised, only in this case McLennan was aware of who precisely had the allergy. In the beginning, therapy dog visits had to be arranged around the EMD’s shifts because of her allergy. Later on, the dogs could visit during her shift, provided there was no physical contact; the EMD reported no ongoing issues.

Scheduling was also an issue at first. The availability of the dogs and the 24/7 operation of the center meant that some emergency dispatchers missed out. But, like the allergy issue, McLennan and her team worked to find a solution and all the shifts are visited now.

Despite the teething troubles, the visits are smooth and the emergency dispatchers are reaping the benefits.

“Staff mention that seeing the dogs help calm them down and cheer them up, especially on stressful days,” McLennan reported.

Harlow (a golden retriever and poodle mix) and Scout (a border collie) are both beloved by the emergency dispatchers and seem to have an intuitive knack to find those who are in need of receiving a cuddle or seeing a fun trick. For example, McLennan recalls a particularly busy day shift when she overheard an emergency dispatcher teling a supervisor about feeling highly anxious. A short time later, the dogs showed up and after a pass around the room, Harlow made a beeline for the emergency dispatcher in question and sat at her feet.

The human component to therapy dog volunteers are crucial in Darwin as well. Teunissen will chat with the emergency dispatchers, talking to them about their own dogs and asking questions related to dog training. She also allayed McLennan’s fears about members of staff having a fear of dogs by saying that Harlow is sensitive to those people and didn’t anticipate any issues. She was correct.

After a highly stressful active shooter incident a couple of months ago, Teunissen contacted McLennan to ask if she and the dogs could make an extra visit for the ambulance and police teams that had been involved.

“There is a visible difference in the center when the dogs walk around and share their time,” McLennan said.

Sydney Control Centre

On the southern side of Australia, Maxine Puustinen, Deputy Director Control of Sydney Control Centre, NSW Ambulance, had a similar idea after a “significant event” occurred that had a profound effect on the center’s staff. Puustinen researched the potential impact a therapy dog visit might have on the staff. She planned a trial visit, which was a huge success, so they had weekly therapy dog visits for a trial period of six months. Further investigation led them to the NSW Guide Dogs, who place trained therapy/companion dogs with facilities or people in need.

NSW Guide Dogs did a site visit at the Sydney Control Centre where they assessed the organization for suitability and surveyed the type of work and atmosphere of the center and the potential impact it might have on a therapy dog. The center has 160 staff total, with up to 30 employees on shift at any given time, which would not be suitable for a dog more comfortable with smaller crowds.

Solly, a yellow Labrador, was chosen, and he currently visits the center three days a week. What does he do during his visits? He wanders around and interacts with the staff; sometimes he will go for walks with people he’s become comfortable with in the park behind the center. He has also visited state headquarters and some paramedic stations, where he’s spent time with some paramedics who were involved in a traumatic incident. “His presence seems to just reduce the stress in the room,” Puustinen said.

When he’s at the center, Solly is often the center of attention and very patient with being photographed endlessly. Mindful that he’s a living creature with emotional and physical limits, Puustinen watches Solly carefully and will take him to her office to sleep if he gets exhausted.

Bring fluffy sunshine to your center

If you’re interested in utilizing therapy dogs in your center—and why wouldn’t you be?—here are some things to consider:

  • Do your homework! Research therapy dog programs in your area and find out how other centers are going about it.
    • Check in with management. It helps if you have a proposal put together to show that you’ve considered every angle.
    • If allergies are a concern, try to find a therapy dog that is a hypoallergenic breed or take steps to cut down on allergens. K-9’s On Call Support Dogs makes sure its dogs are bathed 24 hours before each visit.
    • Make sure your therapy dog organization tests and registers its dogs and provides insurance coverage for the dogs, their teams, and those they’re visiting.
    • Communicate with the therapy dog providers about the nature of emergency dispatch. You don’t want the dogs disrupting the work.
    • Remember that therapy dogs have personalities and feelings just like humans do; pay attention to how dogs are responding and reacting on a visit. Be attuned to when dogs need a break.

About the Author:

Becca’s writing background is primarily in creative writing, although she didn’t have a specific emphasis for her Bachelor’s Degree in English at Brigham Young University. She worked as a ghostwriter for two years where she wrote four novels and edited several more.