If Richmond Fire Department personnel need an emotional boost, they can visit with the department’s four-legged member — Daisy, the new comfort dog.

For now, Daisy relies on her cuteness and puppy personality to provide a pick-me-up and raise morale at the fire department and wherever she visits. However, she’s working hard at obedience training with plans to officially train as a comfort dog.

“She has a good personality, good temperament,” RFD Chief Tim Brown said. “We consider ourselves really fortunate to have her and that she came to us the way she did.”

RFD office staff had talked about acquiring a support animal for the department. One day, Brown was working in his office when he received notice on his phone that a dog had been dumped at a North 24th Street home, and he learned the resident could not keep her.

Daisy walks with Chief Tim Brown to examine Richmond Fire Department’s new Engine 5 outside Station 1 on Nov. 7. Photo by Mike Emery

When Brown opened the photograph, he saw Daisy, a brindle-colored dog with a floppy left ear that reminded him of his childhood dog named Rusty. The resident agreed to let RFD have Daisy, so a pickup was arranged.

“When we got out of the car, the dog immediately came up to us, wagging its tail, and it’s been on since then,” said Brown, while Daisy laid on his office floor, rising only to investigate visitors to the department’s administrative offices.

Brown and Kalie Anderson, a social worker in RFD’s mobile integrated health program, are Daisy’s primary handlers. They take Daisy everywhere, and the receptions are always positive.

Before the much-needed rest on Brown’s office floor, the 6-month-old Daisy had been on the streets interacting with the city’s homeless, then visiting city offices. A couple of those offices already have Daisy drawers with treats for her.

“So far, it has proved to be beneficial to us,” Brown said of Daisy’s presence.

Mental health struggles

Mental health of firefighters — and all first responders — has become more of a priority. The fire service was home to men who entered burning buildings without breathing equipment and stoically endured devastating tragedies. 

Brown said the responders are seen as strong people who handle anything and everything without any emotional damage. But the accumulation of small incidents and the horror of larger tragedies do tug at responders’ emotions. Troubling runs are becoming more and more frequent, Brown said.

“When you go into these homes and you see some of the living conditions and you see people who are really, really trying and it’s not working out for them, it’s tough, heartbreaking for us,” he said. “Then when we do have to respond on a bad incident that involves young children or infants, it’s helpful to have something to help take your mind off of that.” 

Brown said the ability of first responders to open up about emotional problems and impacts from what they see has improved from 20 years ago, but more work remains breaking down barriers stopping responders from asking for and receiving help. 

“It’s getting more prevalent today that these situations that we’re going to are taking a toll on us emotionally,” Brown said. “Whether it affects us at home or affects us at work, there’s a lot more attention being paid to mental health of first responders. We don’t want to lose any more to suicide, and we don’t want our people to have problems without us being able to help.”

Daisy pays more attention to stones in the Station 1 parking lot than to Richmond Fire Department’s new Engine 1 on Nov. 7 outside Station 1. Photo by Mike Emery

Just like SCBA breathing systems protect firefighters’ health, RFD now pays more attention to mental and emotional health, as do other agencies. RFD has participated in the East Central Indiana Critical Incident Stress Management Team, and the Indiana Department of Health stresses addressing secondary trauma that incidents cause responders. 

In fact, the state grant that funded development of the integrated health program requires RFD spend some of that money helping secondary trauma, Brown said. RFD convinced the state that Daisy fills that need.

“They wanted us to attend classes and do different things for the secondary trauma, but I thought this would be a great asset to have a comfort dog, or support animal, so if one of our guys or gals was on a bad run or was having a bad day, Daisy would be there to lift their spirits up a little bit,” Brown said. “At the end of this, I want her to be able to pick up on somebody having a bad day and just go to them and be around.”

Daisy already has passed a puppy obedience class at Charlie’s Dog Obedience Training on West Main Street in Richmond. She’s taking two other obedience courses, then will receive off-leash training and her comfort training. Testing has shown she possesses the temperament and personality to successfully serve as a comfort dog.

Daisy’s been well-received by the community, whether attending events, meeting students or visiting city and county offices. The fire department is also receiving help with Daisy’s care, for which Brown’s deeply appreciative. In addition to the Charlie’s training, Daisy has been helped by Animal Care Alliance, receives food from Blue Buffalo and has bathing, grooming and boarding needs, if needed, provided by Hank’s Pet Lodge in Williamsburg.

“The community’s been a huge support for us doing this,” Brown said.

Not the least because Daisy’s happy demeanor and friendly nuzzles brighten the day of those with whom she interacts. But she’s expected to provide a serious, valuable service for struggling firefighters and other responders.

“We hope that it works,” Brown said. “So far it looks like it is working. She’s brought a lot of smiles to people’s faces.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 6 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.