BY LEE REINSCH
DE PERE — People in the helping professions give of themselves day after day. It’s what they do.
But who helps them when they need help?
It’s an issue that mom of three Tammy Gossen has given a good deal of thought.
In her time of need last year, De Pere Fire Rescue (DPFR) arrived in minutes.
That was last Christmas Eve, when she’d barely realized she was in labor before her daughter Ainsley Noel showed up in the Gossen family room.
“My husband and I are absolutely extremely grateful to the De Pere Fire Rescue team for coming to our aid,” she said.
Ainsley Noel is now a happy, healthy nine-month-old. But the event got Gossen and her husband, John Gossen II, thinking about those emergency personnel and what it must be like to wade into precarious, dramatic, amped-up situations hour after hour, day after day.
“In one 24-hour shift, they may be exposed to any number of traumatic events, from fires that they can’t control, to patients they can’t save,” Gossen said.
So what could they do to help?
The answer was a three-letter word that some would point out spells god in reverse: Dog.
As in a therapy dog for the fire department.
The Gossens just launched a $10,000 fundraiser to sponsor a furry pep coach for DPFR, both as a thank-you and to honor Ainsley Noel’s first birthday.
“Mental health is a huge thing among first responders,” De Pere Fire Rescue Chief Alan Matzke said.
DPFR has been pretty progressive throughout the years: it was an early adopter of a critical incident stress reduction program in the 1990s, and for the last 15 years it has had a proactive chaplain program that addressed things like resiliency training and peer-to-peer counseling, Matzke said.
Late last month, De Pere Common Council gave De Pere Fire Rescue its unanimous thumbs-up to proceed with the therapy dog program.
Dogs in fire houses are nothing new, Matzke said. They date back to the origins of the fire service.
“Department dogs were an integral part of a fire company crew as they ran alongside the horse-drawn fire coaches, soothing the horses and protecting them from thieves,” he said in a memo to De Pere’s finance and personnel committee.
“Police canines have been used in active police work for over 100 years,” he said. “Although these dogs were working breeds with a specific job to do, they also brought something else to the table:
companionship, plus a deeply therapeutic connection with their handlers. Those handlers knew it, and that’s why they love having dogs as partners.”
Of course, dogs continue to play key roles in police and fire departments, and their duties have only grown.
“Some dogs are now trained to enhance the mental health and wellness of our first responders,” Matzke said.
Therapy animals can lower blood pressure, slow breathing, and help the body produce anxiety-reducing hormones, according to UCLA Health, which has a therapy animal program known as the People-Animal Connection.
“Therapy dogs are trained and tempered to assist with providing therapeutic care to anyone and everyone who wants it,” Matzke said.
And who wouldn’t want it?
It’s possible not everyone does. So any DPFR staff member with allergies or who simply doesn’t want to interact with the dog can simply opt-out, Matzke said.
He said that since studies have shown that therapy dogs benefit from having one handler rather than being at large within an organization, one fire department staff member will take on the role of primary caretaker for the dog. The dog will live with that person when not at the firehouse.
The goal is for that person to be someone who works weekdays, so a maximum number of employees can benefit from being around the dog.
He said DPFR plans to use the same breeder and trainer as the Unified School District of De Pere for its dog, Charlee. The trainer not only trains the dog, but the handler as well.
The dog is selected not by breed but by personality traits, he said.
Dollars and scents
Matzke estimates initial costs for the dog will be $8,200 the first year ($7,200 for the dog, training and certification, and $1,000 for supplies) and $1,700 per year for subsequent years. He said he expects fundraising, not city funds, to support the dog.
Nicolet Bank in De Pere helped kick off the fundraiser with a bake sale and the opening of the A Canine for Our Crew fund. Those who would like to donate can do so via any of the Nicolet National Bank locations in the area.
Luna Coffee Roasters in De Pere is donating $5 to the fund from every 12-ounce, $12 bag of A Canine for Our Crew coffee.
“We loved the story behind the Gossens’ fundraiser, so it was an easy choice to come on board,” Mark Patel, owner of Luna Coffee Roasters in De Pere, said.
Patel said they do quite a lot of fundraising coffee sales, directing up to $20,000 per year to various charitable organizations. “It’s a big part of what we do, and we try to do as many as we can,” he said. As of Monday, Coffee sales had already generated $100 to $200 for the cause.
“Response has been very positive,” he said.