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Wilmington Fire Dept welcomes new crisis response dog

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 6:34 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The tradition of having dogs in firehouses dates back more than a century, but Wilmington Fire Department is chasing a new mission with their new crisis response dog, Rhys.

The English Lab knows the basic sit, shake and stay commands, but also knows some tricks you don’t see every day. He can do nightmare interruption, sense someone’s anxiety and intervene, doing anything from licking the person’s hands to giving them a nudge with his head, or asking for a scratch behind the ears.

“All of our facility dogs are trained for 2-plus years so it’s not something that’s a short endeavor. It’s not the same thing as taking a therapy dog somewhere. They’re trained to do these jobs from birth, so he’s had several hundreds of hours of training in all types of scenarios, and especially a dog that’s going to come into a scenario where there’s going to be heavy equipment and loud noises in a lot more diversity in the things they’re going to encounter, a lot more unpredictability, we really wanna make sure we take that training as far as we can so he’s definitely prepared,” said Kyria Whisenhunt, executive director of paws4people.

Rhys began reporting to work with the firefighters at Station 8 this summer as part of a new pilot program through paws4people. The program is just one piece of the department’s bigger mental health and wellness effort that aims to help firefighters process difficult calls, lower anxiety and reduce the effects of PTSD. While they have peer support options and chaplains available, Rhys has the ability to help someone process trauma without saying a word.

“Having the dog here, it takes it all away — that stuff doesn’t matter anymore with his little happy tail wagging. He knows when you’re stressed out. Next thing you know, you’re sitting at the table and he’s nudging on your leg because he wants you to pet his head and it takes away from all those other issues that are going on and it really makes the day better,” said master firefighter Josh Baltz.

Rhys is a tribute dog, named after US Army Sergeant Rhys W. Klasno, who was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007. He was just 20 years old when he died in combat.

The crisis response dog can go wherever the firefighters go, whether it’s the dinner table, their bunks at night, or certain emergency scenes to help people in the community process a devastating event like a car crash or a damaging fire.

“He’s gone on two already, where there are children involved both of those times. After we provided medical treatment and the scene was deescalating, the children were still pretty upset and using Zach and his dog, we were able to deescalate the situation for the children,” said Baltz.

Talking about stress and struggles doesn’t help everyone; however, sometimes the unconditional love from a dog hits just the right spot.

“A lot of people might look at first responders or service members as you know these big guys — or females — that are just robots, but you know we have our own issues as well. We’re affected by calls, by traumatic events. So having this is just one of the tools in the toolbox,” said Rhys’ handler firefighter Zach Whisenhunt.

Rhys was provided at no cost to the Wilmington Fire Department. The department says the program has already been so successful that they’re looking to add more dogs to the department, which they would have to raise funds to cover.

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