The newest member of Fairfax County Fire Station 32 has quickly become just about everyone’s best friend.
And it’s easy to see why. Friendly and outgoing, Wally races to the door to greet visitors. Compassionate and caring, he’ll comfort anyone who’s having a bad day. And, if you stick around long enough, he might just drop a tennis ball at your feet.
Wally, an 11-month old goldendoodle, is a therapy dog who joined the fire station last month as part of a new pilot program of the department’s behavioral health office. Trained and donated to the fire department by the Manassas-based Caring Angels Therapy dogs, Wally is the first therapy dog to live 24/7 at a Fairfax County fire station and, department officials think, he may be the first in the nation.
“Wally’s sole job is to keep the firefighters happy,” said Sonny Madsen, of Catlett, a trainer who owns and operates Sit Means Sit dog training and Caring Angels Therapy Dogs in Manassas. “He’s a people dog and he loves giving and receiving affection.”
The therapy dog program is one of several things the behavioral health office is doing to help take care of the mental health of its employees, said Capt. Buck Best.
So far, it seems like Wally is doing his job well, Best said.
“He’s been here a little over a month now and already you can see changes that have happened,” Best said. “You can see he’s had a huge impact on morale.”
Due to the nature of their jobs, fire and rescue workers can sometimes suffer from post traumatic stress and other mental health issues, and those are the things the behavioral health office is working to help with, Best said.
“No matter what, as firefighters, we are constantly exposed to trauma, to other people’s trauma,” he said.
Battalion Chief Keith Ludeman said Wally is already helping improve the morale at his fire station.
“Just his mere presence has made a difference in the fire house on a daily basis,” Ludeman said. “Everyone likes it when Wally comes around.”
Each of the fire station’s shifts has a designated, trained handler, who is primarily responsible for Wally.
For the C Shift, Wally’s handler is firefighter Wendy Mitchell, who said she has also seen positive changes among her fellow firefighters.
“It’s been great just to see the mood and personality changes he’s caused. People are always saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go pet Wally,’” Mitchell said, miming quotation marks with her fingers. “It’s just been a big improvement.”
Through Caring Angels, Madsen and her team train therapy dogs for military service members and veterans, children with special needs and others who could benefit from them.
As puppies the dogs start out learning basics obedience—commands like “sit,” “stay” and “go to place”—before training for their Canine Good Citizen test, an American Kennel Club certification. Dogs who make it through the early stages of training and are found to have “the right temperament for a therapy dog” then have more advanced training.
“Not all dogs are good therapy dogs. Not all dogs that are good pets are good therapy dogs,” Madsen said.
For their fire station dog, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department was looking for a specific kind of dog, one that was hypoallergenic and that was not too small, Madsen said. They also needed the dog to be trained to have specific skills. For example, when Wally hears the tones that signal a call for service, he is trained to go to his kennel and stay there until the firefighters return. Wally also needed to be willing to spend time with everyone at the fire station, and not get attached to just one or two people, Madsen said.
“Wally is a genuinely sweet dog,. He loves everybody. One of the things he loves to do at the fire station, when he gets out of his kennel goes and checks on everyone,” she said.
In the Prince William County area, you might see Caring Angels therapy-dogs-in-training practicing and testing their skills at area nursing homes, at county fire stations, where the dogs must learn to ignore sirens and other loud sounds, and at malls, where they practice using escalators.
Once trained, Caring Angels dogs, who come in a variety of breeds and sizes, often do their work at the public libraries, where children read to therapy dogs, at Brookdale Lake Ridge, an assisted living home, and at other area schools and locations.
“They’re fun, well-behaved, happy dogs,” Madsen said.
Some at the fire station were more hesitant about the idea of a therapy dog than others, Best said, but most of the skeptics have come around since Wally’s debut, he said.
Best said he asked one firefighter what made him change his mind about Wally.
“He said that before Wally was here, people were mostly focused on themselves. Once Wally arrived, the focus is more on the group and on taking care of Wally,” Best said.
At the fire station on a recent morning, Wally was busy milling around the kitchen, visiting with everyone he could find, before walking over to a pile of toys on top of his kennel.
Taking the hint, Mitchell grabbed a tennis ball and asked Wally to sit before she tossed it to him, and Wally tossed it back.
“Yeah, I think Wally is a great addition to the fire station, I really do,” Mitchell said as she leaned down to give him a scratch behind the ears.