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Fairfax County police’s newest — and furriest — recruits to help first responders cope with stress of job

Chris Sharp of the Fairfax County Police Department trains service dog Jack. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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On a recent afternoon, the Fairfax County Police Department’s newest four-legged recruits were practicing opening doors.

At the entrance to the county government center, most of the dogs had no problem pushing the handicap button to make the glass door swing out. But Holmes, a 10-month-old golden retriever who has a hard time focusing around other dogs, paused.

“Holmes, touch!” his handler Jill Milloy urged, placing a treat in front of the button. “Touch!”

Holmes sniffed around for a few seconds, while the handlers and instructors held their breath. They were hoping to see improvements at this training session, instructor Randy Nieves said.

Finally, the dog went for the treat and completed his task. The handlers clapped.

“Nice job, Holmes!” Nieves said. “Good boy!”

The department has long used dogs to search for illegal drugs or explosives or to track missing people. But Holmes and his fellow recruits, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, will have a far different role. Instead of helping to solve or uncover crimes, they will be tasked with helping first responders cope with the stress of the job.

Departments across the country have had a growing awareness of the toll that responding to crime scenes and traffic accidents and searching for suspects can have on officers and other emergency workers. According to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit organization that tracks officer suicides, more police officers died last year by suicide than the total number of line-of-duty deaths.

“What people don’t realize is we don’t get called when people are having a good day,” said Christopher Sharp, a second lieutenant in the major crimes bureau who is helping to train one of the dogs. “We’re always getting called when people are having their worst day.”

The dogs are just the latest step toward a focus on officer mental health for the Fairfax department.

After a 2006 shooting at a police station that left one detective dead, the department recognized it needed to provide services for officers who experience trauma, Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said. The department hired a risk manager and psychologists. It also created incident support services, which includes a team of psychologists, peer support groups, an employee assistance program and other aspects to support first responders’ mental health.

After a police officer took his own life in 2017 close to the McLean police station, Roessler worked with Jaysyn Carson, director of incident support services, to create a DVD that features first responders talking about their mental health. The chief was among them.

The main message, Roessler said, is that it’s okay not to be okay.

“I, as your chief, suffer, struggle every day,” Roessler said he explains to his officers. “We all do.”

A little more than a year ago, Roessler met with Roger Giese — founder and chief executive of Fredericksburg-based First Responder K9, which trains service dogs — to discuss a partnership centered on the role dogs could play in helping first responders stay healthy.

The idea was simple: First Responder K9 would provide the dogs, the equipment and the training. The police department would provide trainers and help find first responders who could keep the dogs once they were trained. The department would get to keep two of the dogs.

The five dogs are being trained during the next two years as part of the partnership. They will all be certified according to Assistance Dogs International standards.

Three of them — Indy, Sully and Lennie — will be given to first responders who suffer from PTSD, depression or have other physical or mental challenges.

Holmes and Jack, though, will work in the field. Their job will be to go to potentially traumatic events and provide comfort for first responders at the scene.

“The dogs are just there to bring the emotional level down,” said Giese, who spent years training dogs for military veterans. “So when first responders go back to their room at night, they can get a more restful sleep.”

Wayne Montaño, fire and EMS liaison for First Responders K9, thinks it will help. He remembers when he was called to the Pentagon on 9/11. The department had its search-and-rescue dogs there to assist.

“At the end of the day, everyone wanted to pet those dogs, but those dogs were so exhausted from doing their jobs,” Montaño said.

Milloy, Holmes’s handler, is also a clinical psychologist in the police department. When someone experiences a trauma, she said, there are numerous physiological changes that occur that determine how well someone does in recovery, whether the event sticks with them. One of those changes is an increase in a person’s heart rate, which can be one of the predictors of PTSD, Milloy said.

“But when a dog walks into the room, oxytocin is released in the first responder and that interrupts the stress response,” Milloy said. “If you can interrupt, say the heart rate going up, that’s protective for first responders.”

Departments across the country are making similar efforts to support officers’ mental health. Roessler and Carson have spoken at national conferences and shared their ideas with leadership at other law enforcement agencies.

In April, 300 police chiefs and law enforcement officials from across the country came together to discuss suicide among police officers and how to prevent it.

First Responder K9 hopes to expand the organization nationally and said it is in early talks with other departments in the area. The organization’s goal is to get 30 dogs to first responders within the next two to three years, and its partnership with Fairfax County is just part of that, Giese said. The group is training 14 puppies, with more on the way.

The dogs in Fairfax each have their own business card, complete with their photo and their namesake — most dogs are named after a fallen first responder. They are also great ice breakers when officers are in the community, Roessler said, adding that they humanize law enforcement.

At the end of their recent training session, the dogs and their handlers left the government center and were stopped outside by numerous county employees asking to pet the animals. Samantha Hudson, planning and capital projects manager, stopped handler Randy Brooks so she could say hello to Indy, a chocolate Labrador named after the Indianapolis Fire Department.

“You’re making a lot of people’s days,” Hudson said.

Brooks smiled. “We’re going to make a lot of people’s lives, too.”

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