Louie Will See You Now
By Sean Sullivan
Stressed at work? Get a dog.
Responding to emergency calls, Captain Chris Hampton noticed a phenomenon in reading those many rooms. He oversees the Training Division of the Natick Fire Department, and saw that in situations where a dog was present, tension and stress held less sway.
A confluence of high-stakes calls and Covid over the last few years, said Hampton, have stirred the pot of an already high-pressure profession. Responding to people’s homes and interacting closely with the public make firefighters more susceptible to getting sick from a novel virus, and by extension puts their families at greater risk. During that time also, several members of the department had been diagnosed with cancer.
“It just became layered,” said Hampton. “Stress levels high everywhere.”
It seems a truism that stress can be part and parcel of the workplace, but that holds especially true for first responders. The inherent risks to personal and public safety add a whole other dimension to the standard stresses of long hours and deadlines.
Seeing how dogs could lower the temperature in a given situation, Captain Hampton recognized a phenomenon that’s long been appreciated in mental health circles. Animals can serve as a powerful antidote to anxiety and stress.
“Nine times out of ten it was just kind of a calming energy,” said Hampton. “I wanted to find a way to recreate that as a constant for the department.”
Dalmatians, of course, are conjured in the public imagination as the firefighter’s classic K9 companion. In the days of horse-drawn fire engines, the dogs were assigned to soothe and guard their equestrian cousins at the scene of a fire.
Understandably spooked by a blaze, the horses were put more at ease in the presence of their smaller white and black-spotted companions. Via their breeding history, Dalmatians tend to have an affinity for horses.
Bringing a dog into the mix was the logical choice for Hampton. As the saying goes, when you feed and shelter a dog, they come to think of you as a god. But feed and shelter a cat, and they think they’re the god. No shade upon our feline friends, but one would be likely to find a mascot cat too often curled up in a fireman’s helmet in some sunny corner. No, a cat wouldn’t serve.
Tending to be more gregarious and good-naturedly goofy, dogs were the way to go. Hampton started to design a program that would “adopt” a K9 into the ranks of the department. He researched and reached out to other organizations that had successfully done so, embracing from those examples what he thought would work at the NFD. Any M.O. he deemed impractical was discarded.
The 10-week-old Silver Lab became part of Hampton’s family, and by extension, the fire department’s. So as not to be underfoot in the special environment, Louie has been undergoing specialized training. He is technically Hampton’s dog, but lives with the Captain during his four-day rotation at the station.
When the Captain and I spoke over the phone, Louie was asleep in his bunk, a nearby open cage in Hampton’s office. A bustling fire station would seem to provide a never-ending playdate for a dog, constant companionship and attention.
“He’s like a medium-tempered dog. I make him available to everyone I can. He’s loving it.”
If Louie is in the car with Hampton when a call comes in, he’ll ride shotgun with the Captain to the scene.
The Silver Lab is short of stature for now, but that very likely won’t last. Louie’s brother, said Hampton, is already weighing in at 80 pounds.
“He’s going to be a big boy.”
Now, said Hampton, other departments and organizations are reaching out to him for advice on how to integrate a team member like Louis into their group. The Captain has thus far paid for the dog, his training, and all the expenses of pet ownership himself.
That option was simplest in terms of bypassing red tape, said Hampton, if not the least expensive. Yet the department has been supportive, and is exploring ways the organization might share some of those costs.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the Chief and union support.”
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