No One Serves Alone — The K9s For Warriors Station Dog Program

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

6 min read

Nearly 37% of EMS personnel and firefighters have considered suicide — a rate nearly ten times greater than non-first-responders.

The peak of the COVID-19 pandemic left many first responders physically and emotionally exhausted. On the front lines, they endured long shifts, resource shortages, and tough calls.

K9s For Warriors saw the tragic emotional impact in its backyard when a local Jacksonville Beach police officer died by suicide in 2020.  

Station Dog Mason

Over 80% of first responders report experiencing trauma or life-threatening events on the job, similar to the 85% of U.S. veterans that report exposure. (SAMHSA and Hill & Ponton)

With first responder suicide and PTSD rates on the rise, the need for support was apparent.

“We have a skyrocketing problem with first responder suicide, and we couldn’t sit on the sidelines any longer,” said K9s For Warriors CEO Rory Diamond. 

Service Dog to Station Dog

In December 2020, K9s For Warriors placed its first three Station Dogs with local police departments, in Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach, and Atlantic Beach, Florida, repurposing retired or career-changed Service Dogs to become emotional support animals for first responders.

Though K9s For Warriors has paired over 700 veterans with highly-trained Service Dogs, not every dog procured for training makes its way through the program.

A dog may career-change for a variety of reasons from health limitations to temperament. The Station Dog program provides a productive outlet for dogs unsuited for or retired from Service Dog duties.

Something Had to Change

Since beginning in 2020, the K9s For Warriors Station Dog program has only grown.

St. Johns County Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Brian Mitzel said he saw the placement of the first K9s For Warriors Station Dogs in the news. It peaked his interest.

“To be 100% honest, we weren’t really sure what a Station Dog was going to do for the department,” Mitzel said. “A couple of years ago I believe the number of suicides surpassed the number of deaths through dying in a house fire.”

Something had to change.

Garrett Has That Magic

Station Dog Garrett

Station Dog Garrett was placed with St. Johns County Fire and Rescue in November 2021, and life around the station has looked quite different since then.

Like many military veterans, Mitzel said first responders often feel the weight of stigma and stereotypes.

“We are supposed to be brave and heroic, and we’re not supposed to talk about our feelings or emotions,” he said.

Mitzel’s team was buzzing with excitement when they heard the news of Garrett’s arrival.

“When chief told us last year this was something he was looking into, I was ecstatic,” said firefighter Katrina Silvia. “If you have a bad call, Garrett’s there to give you love. He warms your heart, and he lets you know everything is going to be OK.”

Silvia said Garrett has helped with processing some of the heavy emotions that accompany tough calls.

“You’re not always ready to talk about things after a bad call because you haven’t processed your emotions,” she said. “That’s where Garrett can bridge that gap. He has that magic.”

You're not always ready to talk about things after a bad call. That's where Garrett can bridge that gap. He has that magic.

Headed South

In 2021, the K9s For Warriors Station Dog program expanded to South Florida.

Hillsborough County, Florida, comprised of Tampa and its surrounding cities, has seen a rise in violent crimes since 2017 (Florida Department of Law Enforcement), and in 2020, Florida saw the state’s highest spike in homicides since 1991 — 14.7%.

Local first responders are feeling the effects, said HCSO Sheriff Chad Chronister.

“Our days are often filled with challenging situations, and at times, tensions run high,” he said.

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski said that they must, now more than ever, care for the mental health and wellness of their staff.

“From our communications center employees to our deputies on the streets, we’re trying to find some way to alleviate that stress,” said Lusczynski.

For HSCO, that meant Mason, a yellow Labrador retriever.

Mason Mondays

K9s For Warriors donated Station Dog Mason to Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in September 2021, and he quickly became a crowd favorite. He now has his own designated day on all HSCO social media pages — “Mason Monday.”

Mason was first paired with his veteran in 2018, but after years of healing, the Warrior was ready to pay it forward. He told K9s For Warriors he’d like Mason to serve someone else in-need.

Greg Wells, K9s For Warriors Station Dog program manager, said there’s no better feeling.

“It’s super rewarding. A Warrior has done great things, and the dog is still able to live a happy, fulfilling life and then help many more people,” Wells said.

Mason now spends his days traveling to the various stations visiting, bringing smiles everywhere he goes.

Like all Station Dogs, Mason has a designated handler who he goes home with each evening. Handlers are responsible for the care and wellbeing of their Station Dog.

A Crowd Favorite

Mason was first paired with his veteran in 2018, but after years of healing, the Warrior was ready to pay it forward. He told K9s For Warriors he’d like Mason to serve someone else in-need.

Greg Wells, K9s For Warriors Station Dog program manager, said there’s no better feeling.

“It’s super rewarding. A Warrior has done great things, and the dog is still able to live a happy, fulfilling life and then help many more people,” Wells said.

Mason now spends his days traveling to the various stations visiting, bringing smiles everywhere he goes.

Like all Station Dogs, Mason has a designated handler who he goes home with each evening. Handlers are responsible for the care and wellbeing of their Station Dog.

Each morning, Mason gets into work mode by donning his “Therapy Dog” vest.

Don’t be fooled, though — Mason gets and gives plenty of love once the vest comes off.

“Mason walks into a room and people just smile,” said Chief Deputy Lusczynski. “He walks up to them, and they just want to pet on him and love on him.”

“Mason’s friendship keeps spirits up and reminds us that no one walks alone,” said HCSO Sherriff Chronister.

Mason's friendship keeps spirits up and reminds us that no one walks alone.

First Responders Are Family

Just like a veteran trains on the K9s For Warriors campus to use their new Service Dog, first responders complete training to prepare for their new Station Dog, learning basic dog handling and behavior.

Throughout the entirety of the placement, K9s For Warriors works collaboratively with stations to ensure the health and wellness of both the Station Dog and first responders.

To many first responders, a Station Dog is another member of their family.

“First responders are all family members,” said Wells. “That is a family unit, and that dog feels that love. They help every single person they can.”

For many first responder stations, a K9s For Warriors Station Dog has made all the difference.

Clay County Sheriff’s Office received its Station Dog, a Labradoodle named JP, in 2021, and Sheriff Michelle Cook said she saw the positive impact right away.

“Participating in the Station Dog program is one of the best decisions our agency has ever made. Simple, effective and life-changing,“ said Cook.

As of April 2022 , K9s For Warriors has placed 12 Station Dogs in departments across Florida, with plans to expand service across the country.

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