Fla. FD to expand K9 program, train greyhounds as therapy dogs

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue aims to have a therapy dog at every fire station, and plans to adopt greyhounds left homeless after Florida's racing ban


C. Isaiah Smalls II
Miami Herald

MIAMI — Capt. Shawn Campana needed an escape. The stress and pressures of working in Miami-Dade Fire Rescue were beginning to weigh on her.

Enter Charlie, a 3-year-old Greyhound she adopted in 2015.

This Oct. 4, 2018 photo shows Josephine, a former greyhound racing dog in West Palm Beach, Fla. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue plans to adopt dogs abandoned after the state's greyhound racing ban and train them as K9s and therapy dogs. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
This Oct. 4, 2018 photo shows Josephine, a former greyhound racing dog in West Palm Beach, Fla. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue plans to adopt dogs abandoned after the state's greyhound racing ban and train them as K9s and therapy dogs. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

“There’s light again,” Campana said of Charlie, “and there hasn’t been in some time. He was the only thing that made that happen.”

Four years later, she stood next to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and County Commissioner Sally Heyman as the trio announced the expansion of the K9 Response Program. The program, which Campana started in 2016, is designed to help first responders cope with occupational stress and victims in crisis situations.

As a former firefighter, this program holds a special place in Gimenez’s heart.

“I know firsthand how tough it can be to see the loss of life that we often have to face,” Gimenez told reporters Monday at Haulover Park in Northeast Miami-Dade.

The program, a leader across the nation, has two functions. Trained handlers and dogs can be sent out to help firefighters who have returned from a difficult assignment. The other involves each station having its own therapy dog.

A response K9 “is a therapy dog on steroids,” Campana said with a smile. “But really it’s a K9 and handler trained to deal with people in crisis to provide relief and comfort.”

The timing of the expansion couldn’t be better. Before the program’s expansion, there was no place for Campana to train the dogs and handlers. Now, dogs will be trained and housed at the MDFR Ocean Rescue Station at Haulover Park.

In addition to the previous lack of infrastructure, there’s the need to address the issue of mental health among first responders.

A 2017 Ruderman Family Foundation study found first responders have rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression five times higher than the standard civilian. Additionally, the study discovered they are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

With the demand for therapy dogs already apparent, the only thing needed were the K9s themselves. Then came Amendment 13. This statewide voter referendum banned greyhound racing in Florida — but left many dogs without homes.

“We are rescuing dogs that need to be rescued,” Heyman said. “We are not going out in Miami-Dade and buying dogs.”

That, Heyman says, will save the county “thousands of dollars.” Officials also say no taxpayer money is used for training or housing.

MDFR plans to adopt and train dogs not just through the Greyhound Association but also with Miami-Dade Animal Services.

Three years after Charlie became the program’s first graduate, MDFR now has 10 therapy dogs of various breeds. Campana says the next step is getting each station its own therapy dog. Each K9 will take four months to train, but that will give stations the time to apply and meet the various housekeeping requirements to be eligible.

With the applications already flooding in, Gimenez hopes the dogs will do for all firefighters across the state what was done with Campana.

“These therapy dogs will give our first responders the emotional support they need to heal.”

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©2019 Miami Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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