At the M Health Fairview Forest Lake and Saint Paul stations, crews receive some much-needed stress relief from a soothing companion. Clayton, a yellow lab, has been visiting for about the last four months.
“He knows when you’re not yourself or something’s happened and you’re feeling down,” Nicole Foster, an EMS training specialist and paramedic at M Health, told Fairview. “He can feel it and you can kind of tell that this vendor might need my attention a bit, I’ll be wagging my tail at his side. It is very nice.”
The last few years have been challenging for first responders. The pandemic added uncertainty to the calls they receive.
“If you have in mind that there is a risk that I will get COVID, I will take it home and share it with my colleagues – it has been very stressful,” he told Foster. “This species also limited your interactions overall.”
About a year ago, Operations Supervisor Kevin Kane began exploring other ways to address mental health needs.
“I think the lightbulb went on when we had a 911 call and the patient was fine, it ended up being a false alarm and immediately crews wanted to pet the owner’s dog,” Kane said. “How do we do this for ourselves?”
He acquired Clayton through Can Do Canines, which trains service animals. Kane said he also worked with Clayton to encourage him to contact emergency services when they return from the field.
“We’re seeing cumulative trauma in rescuers, so we need an outlet for that,” Kane said. “Sometimes we forget that we have to take care of ourselves. […] If you can walk through the door and you’ve had a rough day or a rough call and you see him walk in, I think it makes everything better.”
Kane said first responders are requesting visits to Clayton. He also regularly sends photos of him to help crews in difficult moments.
“It just gives me a lot of hope,” Kane said. “When we see a lot of the mental health challenges that emergency workers and frontline workers go through and then see that they’re able to release some of those things, it makes me smile.”
Clayton’s presence brings peace of mind to Foster, especially when she returns from tough calls. She said mental health stigma can discourage people from seeking help.
“A lot of us don’t know how to ask for help, we kind of keep it to ourselves,” Foster said. “The difficult thing about being at EMS is that we see things that other people don’t see. Going to your non-healthcare and EMS friends isn’t really an outlet to talk about what you’re observing or seeing. You almost feel stuck.”
She believes programs like this help raise awareness of the mental health challenges faced by first responders.
“There are times when we can’t find our words to speak to others, or maybe it’s difficult to find those words for what we’ve seen,” she said. “Having an animal who might not necessarily share what’s going on but might feel comforted by them relieves some of that stress.”
She hopes the program will expand in the future.
“Clayton has been a great addition to the company and as a facility dog, but we have three main bases,” Foster said. “It would be great to have another dog like him in more of our bases.”
Kane agrees, telling us he’s already had calls from other agencies looking to implement a similar program.
“I love sharing everything we’ve learned,” he said. “It would be fantastic if we could duplicate something like that.”