Criminal justice jobs are stressful for a number of reasons. Law enforcement personnel have to work long hours, often closer to eighty hours than to forty, and in many places, they have to experience violence and extreme trauma on a daily basis. Not only do police officers frequently get put in highly stressful situations, but they often have to help people who have suffered extreme trauma. What many people do not realize is that it is possible to get PTSD second-hand, from dealing with people who have experienced trauma first-hand. “‘Vicarious trauma is the transformation that occurs within the therapist (or other trauma worker) as a result of empathic engagement with the clients’ trauma experiences’ (Perlman and Mac Ian, 1995)” (Rousseau D., 2019. Module 1.) While this quote is referring primarily to therapists, police officers also experience vicarious trauma because of their interactions with severely traumatized individuals or through looking at media, such as photos or videos, of traumatic incidents including rape, murder, suicide, and other violent deaths. All of this means that law enforcement personnel are usually under a tremendous amount of stress, and not surprisingly the rates of PTSD in Law Enforcement are between 7% and 15% (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2018), which is significantly higher than the national average, and suicides rates among law enforcement are roughly four times the national average (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2019). In order for police officers and other emergency services personnel to continue to do their jobs year after year, while being both under stress and exposed to other people’s stress they need to have effective ways to let off steam and relax. Self-care techniques are almost never completely sufficient to eliminate issues such as PTSD, but these techniques can help alleviate daily stress, and can help prevent a buildup of stress that could cause more serious health issues. These techniques can also help those who are suffering from PTSD, as long as they are combined with visits to a specialist who can help with the aspects of PTSD that cannot be effectively self-treated.
Over the years both in school and in various jobs I have had to learn to deal with being in stressful and sometimes frustrating situations. Throughout this time, I have found that working with and being around dogs has made me calmer, more relaxed, and overall less stressed. Growing up I had dogs and I found that when I would get stressed out, if I just played with my dogs, I would feel better. Because of my own experiences I decided to find out if any police departments were using dogs for stress relief and therapy purposes, instead of just the usual tracking and drug sniffing K9 uses. It turns out that in the past two years a few police and fire departments around the United States have started to use therapy dogs to help their employees cope with stress and PTSD. According to the departments who are starting this initiative their hope is to reduce stress, anxiety, and police officer deaths by suicide. One reason why this idea might not very common yet is the high cost of a trained therapy dog.
According to Bolton Fire Chief, Jeff Legendre, his department has to raise $8,000 in order to get a therapy dog (Miller, B., 2019). Compared to other expenses that police and fire departments face this cost might not be astronomical, but these types of organizations rarely have extra money, and therefore, they are not inclined to shell out $8,000 for something that might or might not help their departments. I suspect that as more departments get therapy dogs, and the successes of this become more known, then more departments will raise the necessary funds to have their own dog. Other departments, such as Fayetteville North Carolina, have found cheaper ways of obtaining department therapy dogs (McCleary, N., 2017). The Fayetteville Police Department officially acquired a certified therapy dog in January of 2017 by having the dog be owned by one of the department’s employees. One of the Fayetteville Police Department forensic firearm examiners, Jaimie Minns, decided to get their personal dog, Rebel, trained as a therapy dog. Minns then went to her Police Chief and suggested that Rebel become an official member of the department, because she had seen that other departments in the state had started to get therapy dogs. The Fayetteville Police Chief went along with this idea and thus the department acquired a therapy dog for free (McCleary, N., 2017).
I doubt that every single police and fire department needs to have their own therapy dog. That being said, I think that if this idea takes off enough that most police officers and firefighters have access to a therapy dog, even if it works for another department, there is a significant chance that suicide rates among first responders will go down. Therapy dogs have been successful in hospitals and helping soldiers with PTSD, so why not use them to help police officers and firefighters, ideally before they actually get to the point of having Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder? I am sure that therapy dogs will not eliminate PTSD or suicide among first responders, but if the dogs can at least reduce the number of first responders who commit suicide each year, then that will be a huge success in my book.
Rousseau D. (2019). Module 1. Introduction to Trauma. Lecture, BU Blackboard Learn
Rousseau D. (2019). Module 6. Trauma and the Criminal Justice System. Lecture, BU Blackboard Learn
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018, September 25). National Center for PTSD. Retrieved April 29, 2019, from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/care/toolkits/police/managingStrategiesPolice.asp
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2019). NAMI. Retrieved April 29, 2019, from https://www.nami.org/find-support/law-enforcement-officers
McCleary, N. (2017, January 27). Therapy dog helps Fayetteville police deal with stress, anxiety. Retrieved May 02, 2019, from https://www.fayobserver.com/048ceda3-354f-5aaf-97a4-8dca37302f5d.html
Miller, B. (2019, May 02). Could bringing back the fire station dog help first responders cope with stress? Retrieved May 02, 2019, from https://www.boston25news.com/news/could-bringing-back-the-fire-station-dog-help-first-responders-cope-with-stress-/945759107