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Tanya is a 3-year-old black Lab trained to respond to dozens of commands. She can sit, stay, open a door, turn on a light, pick something up off the floor and much more.

She also knows how to provide quiet comfort for people enduring stress. For that, Tanya doesn't even need a command.

The dog seems to intuit when people are upset and will go sit or lie down next to them, said Kate Heckaman, a captain and paramedic with the St. Paul Fire Department.

"Dogs have an innate ability to engage," Heckaman said. "It's nothing that I tell her to do — it's just her presence, and it just organically happens."

Tanya is a service dog from Helping Paws, a Hopkins-based nonprofit that breeds, trains and places dogs to assist people who have physical disabilities or post-traumatic stress disorder. About a year ago, Tanya became one of the program's "facility dogs," in her case serving the department's Fire Station 1. Other facilities with highly trained dogs include courthouses and law enforcement offices, where the dogs help comfort members of the public.

That's part of Tanya's job, too. She lives with Heckaman and goes wherever Heckaman goes, hanging out at the station during her shifts, riding along in her SUV when she's out on calls. In a crisis, she can sense who might need a head to pet.

"I think she just senses where her place needs to be," Heckaman said. On one call, for example, a woman had just lost her father. "Tanya curled up at her feet, not mine."

But Tanya's main role is at the station, helping first responders work through the stress of a job that requires constant exposure to trauma.

"She started making an impact from Day 1," said Mike Hogan, a retired assistant St. Paul fire chief. Hogan and his wife, Debbie, train dogs for Helping Paws, including Tanya.

Tanya, a black-lab service dog, locked eyes with Capt. Kate Heckaman at St. Paul Fire Station 1.
Tanya, a black-lab service dog, locked eyes with Capt. Kate Heckaman at St. Paul Fire Station 1.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Hogan believes Tanya's presence keeps emotions from settling into long-term stress — the kind that lingers and accumulates, increasing the risk of depression, divorce, alcohol abuse, even suicide.

"The long-term events are the ones that become debilitating," Hogan said. "They start to build up over time."

'The emotional side'

Make no mistake, firefighters are tough. The ability to stay chill in a crisis is a job requirement.

"These guys and gals ... they are incredibly resilient and stress-resistant people," said Sue Johnston, a clinical social worker who specializes in therapy for firefighters and other emergency service professionals. "They're trained to run into burning buildings, for Pete's sake, and they practice all the time. So these people have extra armor, training, mental fortitude."

But it adds up. The fires, car crashes, shootings, stabbings, electrocutions, drownings, fatal heart attacks. The children who die. The times when you respond exactly as trained but someone dies anyway. Once, over lunch with veteran firefighters, Hogan remembers someone asking how many deaths the others figured they'd seen.

"I started doing a quick analysis and thought, it's got to be well into the hundreds," he said.

Tanya goes everywhere that fire Capt. Kate Heckaman goes.
Tanya goes everywhere that fire Capt. Kate Heckaman goes.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Before starting the job, Hogan hadn't even considered that witnessing all those deaths might take a toll on his mental health.

"When I was training to become a firefighter, I was determined that nobody's going to do anything faster than me, nobody's going to do anything better than me," Hogan said. "The part of the job that completely blindsided me was the emotional side of it."

On one of Hogan's earliest runs he treated a 2-year-old girl wearing a pink sleeper. At the time, Hogan had a 2-year-old girl, and she had the same pink sleeper.

"This little girl didn't make it," he said. "I was on night watch. I thought, 'There's nobody I can tell about this, there's nobody I could call about this, there's nothing I can do.'"

Culture of silence

According to traditional fire department culture, Hogan wasn't supposed to talk about it. If he had, the response might have been "Buck up, Buttercup." Talking about feelings was taboo.

"At my very first fire, we lost two kids," he said. "We went to the bar, had some drinks. That's how you dealt with it."

Traditionally, firefighters have been reluctant to reveal vulnerabilities "because they have to rely on each other to be there in tough times," Johnston said. "They're fearful they'll lose confidence in each other."

But this culture of silence also is blamed for higher than average suicide rates among firefighters and EMS providers, according to a 2017 paper by the Ruderman Family Foundation. The St. Paul department has had a couple of suicide deaths.

So fire departments are turning more focus on mental health issues. MnFIRE, an advocacy organization established in 2016, recruits and trains "peer supporters," current or former firefighters available for conversation with anyone experiencing personal or emotional problems.

"We're having really cool conversations about mental health — breaking down those barriers and the stigma," Heckaman said. "We're starting to recognize you can only shove things down so deep."

Calming presence

Heckaman and Hogan were at a peer support meeting when Heckaman said, "Wouldn't it be nice if we had a dog on the fire department?"

At first, about half their fellow firefighters didn't think so. One guy said, "If you need to have a dog to come to work, maybe you should think about getting a different job," Hogan recalled. "I said, 'I can agree with you to a certain point, but if having a dog around made your day just a little bit better, wouldn't it be worth it?'"

The guy soon came around, as did all the firefighters.

Interacting with a dog can calm nervous systems and ease tension in a room, Johnston said. And unlike therapists, spending time with a dog carries no stigma.

When Johnston talks to groups of first responders or medical professionals, if there's a therapy dog in the room, "that dog becomes my co-leader," she said. "The dog will go over and maybe nudge somebody, that person will start petting the dog, and I can see that person relax a little bit."

Helping Paws currently has 65 dogs in training, but the demand far exceeds the supply. Fundraising efforts are underway to expand the program, including to more first responder departments.

"I think there should be a Tanya in every single fire department in Minnesota," said Alyssa Golob, director of Helping Paws. "That's the ideal, because it's working."

Heckaman agreed. "Tanya is making a difference. We're saving people with her presence."