COVINGTON, Georgia – A mixed breed dog helps a group of Newton County first responders deal with the often emotionally demanding and stressful job.
Covington-Newton County’s 911 officials have been using the skills of a trained therapy dog named Annie since August to help its staff answer some of the many emotionally stressful calls they receive, Director Trudy Henry said.
“Just their presence has influenced the dispatchers so much,” she said.
“Now when you come to work and see Annie, smile, happy to be there,” she said. “Your presence just brings a different attitude to the radio room.”
Emergency response operators are often faced with obtaining accurate information from concerned and sometimes frantic callers at the scene of a violence or car accident and then relaying the information to the authorities – in addition to telling someone how to perform CPR or how to do it treat a stab wound until rescue workers arrive.
Annie has also helped reduce stress for employees who are forced to do extra work that would likely be done by others if all available positions in the department were filled, Henry said.
It filled only 21 posts out of a total of 33 posts in the department’s budget, Henry said.
An understaffed department is part of a trend for public safety officials as employees look for jobs that are less stressful and more plentiful than they have been in years, Henry said.
“It’s the stress of the new world we live in,” said Henry.
She said the past few years have been “traumatic” at times, as the employees have dealt with the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic in tragic situations in addition to their regular dealings with the residents of the district.
“I guess we’ve had a couple of incidents across the county over the past few years – kind of dramatic calls – that involved dispatchers. Someone who takes the bigger calls bears the bigger burden, ”she said.
Henry said she was not personally a “dog person” but saw how some dogs that others brought to visit the center affected the work of her department.
She said she saw the service dog of a former emergency dispatcher visiting the center help change the “attitudes” of the staff.
This led Henry to consider having a therapy dog live at the 911 center to help staff with their work around the clock, she said.
“I just knew this was something to consider,” said Henry. “When you can see the difference and see the calming effect – just putting your hand on the dog and being able to stroke it, just changes a person’s perspective.”
She said one of her dispatchers’ goals in 2020 is to have a full-time therapy dog at the center.
“When they started, I thought, ‘This will never work,'” she said. “Over time, and then with COVID and the pandemic – the mental stability of our people – we’ve seen that this is probably a good time.
“Just watching a dog change a person’s attitudes and perspective and somehow change the way they think (I thought) about things could be something about it,” she said.
After using another therapy dog for a while, Henry said she found Annie and a former coworker helped find a program to train her to be a therapy dog.
Annie came from Covington’s Oval Office Therapy Dogs, which breeds and trains dogs for use as therapy and service dogs.
Henry said Annie lived with her for a while before the Golden-Doodle – a mix of Golden Retriever and Poodle – moved into the 911 Center. The pandemic and a few other factors – like a reorganization of the center – resulted in some disruptions in the schedule for introducing a therapy dog, she said.
“Things were in the air for a while,” said Henry.
However, Henry said she was able to get approval from city and county governments before bringing in Annie to assist the 21 staff.
Annie has started to settle in both as emotional support for 911 employees and in public appearances as a representative of the division, jointly run by the Covington and Newton Counties governments.
Henry said Annie used to go home with her every night, but Annie now usually doesn’t like leaving the center for any reason.
“If I go upstairs and take her to the center, she’ll get mad when I put her in the car,” said Henry. “She will turn her back on me and not look at me.”
But Annie usually gets kinder when she gets used to meeting strangers, Henry said.
On her travels she accompanied Henry to meetings at Covington Town Hall and the fire department. She also assisted Henry in giving presentations to community groups such as the Kiwanis Club.
She also recently traveled to Georgia State University’s Newton campus for a class for criminal justice students on the benefits of therapy dogs, Henry said.
She said the 911 Center is working to get Annie’s American Kennel Club certification as a therapy dog.
The test for certification involves the ability to ignore external influences such as children playing nearby and focus on the person the dog is supposed to be supporting, she said.
“She received her behavioral training,” said Henry. “The therapeutic part comes with the way she interacts with people and how she interacts when she is around people.”