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New therapy dog will play key role for Iowa FFs, community

River, the 4-month-old German shepherd puppy, will take part in critical incident stress debriefings for Newton first responder and residents


By Christopher Braunschweig
Newton Daily News

NEWTON, Iowa — The newest member of the Newton Fire Department has a ruff job.

When the fire station gets a call from dispatch, she gets to take a nap while the others suit up. And every so often she has to socialize with all the firefighters and paramedics. This new employee is awful demanding, too. She insists everybody scratches her ears or gives her a belly rub. Not even the chief asks for that!

Captain Steve Ashing says her name is River, and when the four-month-old German Shepherd puppy is fully grown she will play an important role at the fire department as a therapy dog. Even now the pup is going through extensive training to identify and respond to individuals going through stress or trauma.

“Our obedience training is slightly different,” Ashing said. “It’s the same heel, sit, stay, come — all that kind of stuff. Eventually, if you are in crisis, I can put her by you and she’ll just kind of be there for you ... Her No. 1 job will be to take care of firefighters here and give some support to them.”

River accompanied Ashing when he announced the therapy canine program to city council members at their meeting on June 5. The big-eared Shepherd stood obediently at her human’s heel, cocking her head ever so slightly at audience members as Ashing explained what she would do when she grows up.

“She will do multiple things not only in the station but out in the community,” Ashing said, noting therapy dogs have a storied history of helping firefighters. "...Seventy percent of citizens will experience one catastrophic event in their life, so either a major fire or car wreck or medical emergency.”

Emergency responders will see anywhere between 500 to 600 catastrophic events in their careers. Ashing said anything that can help firefighters and paramedics better recover from these events is a wise investment. It will be about a year until River can be fully utilized for therapeutic purposes.

“In the station, she’s basically going to be a pet,” Ashing said. "...But when she’s all said and done, she’ll be able to sense (stress). Stress response in the body gives off different hormones. So she’ll be trained to go to that person. So that’s a simple way to think about that.”

Captain Steve Ashing stands with River, a German Shepherd puppy and a therapy canine in-training, outside the Newton Fire Department. River is to play an important role in helping the mental health of first responders, as well as residents who may have experienced a traumatic event.


Crisis Canines of the Midlands, a Colfax-based nonprofit, provided River in partnership with Adelhorst Kennels in Altoona. Ashing said Crisis Canines’s goal is to place a dog in every county in Iowa to provide crisis response, peer support and stress relief, as well as becoming agency ambassadors for public outreach.

Justin Smith, of Crisis Canines, approached Ashing about raising a puppy for the fire department. As an owner of a 9-year-old German Shepherd named Sadie, Ashing was already well-accustomed to the dog breed and its temperament. In February, he brought Sadie to the fire station to gauge staff response.

“It went really well and everyone had positive things to say, but since she was old enough it may not have been worth it to go through all of the extensive training,” Ashing said. “Then River became available. She’s fantastic. She’s the calmest, best little puppy I’ve ever had. And she loves people.”

The craze of therapy dogs in first responder offices seems to be catching on. Another fire captain is also getting a puppy to be trained as a therapy dog. Earlier this month the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office announced Lt. Mike Gunsaulus and Deputy TJ Decker would welcoming Poppy and Delta to the squad.


As a crisis response canine, River will be brought to critical incident stress debriefings, which Ashing said is the “fancy term” for the beginning of the therapy process after a major call. First responders who take part in a catastrophic or traumatic incidents have a hotwash to evaluate performance.

“Everyone gets together right after the call and just kind of talk about it, what you’re feeling, what went well, what went bad. It’s just a talk and you kind of gauge how people are handling it,” Ashing said. “Everybody handles everything differently. There’s no wrong way to process.”

From there, first responder personnel — whether it’s police officers, dispatchers, EMS or firefighters — begin a more formal debrief. Some individuals may be more closed off than others, which is where River fits in to all this. Ashing said the simple act of petting a dog can put people at ease more quickly.

“In the past, us emergency responders have not done well with dealing with our feelings,” Ashing said. “Those debriefings are where she really comes into play ... It snaps them out of their head for a little bit to engage with the fluffy puppy that comes in and puts them at ease a little bit, open up a little more.”


As a member of the advanced life support team at the county sheriff’s office, Ashing believes the one of the best ways for emergency responders to take care of their communities is to make sure they are taken care of, too. Ashing coined an expression frequently used by Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty:

“If you don’t take care of your people, how do you expect them to take care of others? That’s where my thought process is with this,” Ashing said. "...It’s all about mental health. First responders see so many catastrophic events. If you don’t figure out how to deal with that, your career is going to be pretty short.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, the tenure for paramedics in private ambulance companies is about seven years, and the tenure for fire-based EMS agencies is, at most, 10 years. Ashing said a good number may leave after six years. There are two main reasons why paramedics leave the profession.

“One, they advance in health care. So they advance to be nurses or doctors or whatever. Then the second leading cause of people leaving is mental health,” he said. “They just can’t handle the job anymore. It’s too much. It’s too stressful. This program is supposed to help curb that as much as we can.”

River, a four-month-old German Shepherd puppy and therapy dog in-training, gets an ear scratch that feels so good she taps her foot, leading to the Ashing family to call her “Rabbit.”


It’s a good thing River loves people, because she is going to get accustomed to a lot of folks in the emergency response teams throughout Jasper County. Ashing is a member of the critical incident stress debriefing team for the county, and River will be joining him during those sessions.

“Any agency,” Ashing said. “Anything from the jail to the Newton Police Department to agencies in Colfax or Kellogg or wherever. We’ve even opened it up to other counties. We’ve gone down as far as Lineville (Wayne County) and Leon (Decatur County) and that kind of stuff.”

Of course, having a dog at the fire station also means River will be quite popular at elementary schools in Newton. Through River’s public relations work, the fire department wants the community to get to know her. Ashing wants to make it a point to introduce her to people before she is really needed.

“That way they know her before she’s there in a working capacity,” he said. “We’ll do school events and visit nursing homes and hospital staff ... She’ll also go to some calls. But she won’t be sticking her head out the window as the lights and sires go off on the road to a call.”


In the event a catastrophic incident occurs, Ashing said after the call is taken care of is when River would be able to visit a victim and work her magic.

“We would kind of start that healing process,” Ashing said. "...It’s more of a distraction, especially in a death situation. Of course the handlers are trained in how to comfort people in crisis and how to do things to get their brains processing right out of the gate instead of just being in trauma the whole time.”

While the presence of a dog may not fix the problem, Ashing said it makes it a little better. Therapy dogs are always generally used after a traumatic event takes place to help people heal from their trauma. Having a dog nearby to pet or pay attention to may just distract them enough to move forward.

Outside of a traumatic event, Ashing just hopes River brings joy to the community and to the staff of the Newton Fire Department.

“To bring joy to everyone she’s around and be an uplifting presence.”

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