'She is a focus of mental health': K-9 Tesla provides an escape for firefighters, community members

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DELAFIELD, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Tasked with protecting and serving the communities in which they live and work, police officers, first responders and firefighters regularly find themselves exposed to high levels of stress and trauma.

"It's difficult, the amount of trauma that these individuals are exposed to is sometimes unfathomable," explained Craig Childs, a police and public safety psychologist. "Every day, you never know if you're going to encounter something somewhat normal and just be able to interact with members of the community, or if it's going to be something horrific and extremely challenging."

For years, firefighters and other first responders would go to work and go home. The terrors they faced on the job were just that, part of the job. At least, that's what they were told.

"It was much more the 'rub some dirt on it mentality,' Childs said. "Over the years now, there's been much more awareness and recognition of things like burnout and addressing divorce rates, alcoholism, suicide rates, and starting to acknowledge mental health is an important factor in these throughout the careers. Departments are more open now to mental health services."

Over the last 15 years, however, that thought process has changed with departments across the nation putting more of an emphasis on mental health through different counseling, programs, or in the case of Lake Country Fire and Rescue; a four-legged friend.

K-9 Tesla is a service dog with the Lake Country Fire and Rescue department. Her handler, Assistant Chief Matt Haerter, flipped the bill for her years of training to be able to provide his colleagues and community with a service dog.

"Tesla is essentially the manifestation of a promise for us as a department to make sure that we take care of our people and the people we're charged to serve," Assistant Chief Haerter said. "She is a focus of mental health."

A Labrador retriever, Tesla comes from a family bloodline of service dogs. Despite her 'professionalism' while on the job, she's a dog at heart, enjoying her share of treats, games of fetch, and dock jumping into lakes.

"She's been treated like a princess ever since she was brought into our home and now she's co-queen with my wife," said Haerter. "She has a good gig and I often say she's never had a bad day in her life, and I really don't think she has."

While she may not have bad days, she's able to assist those who are, whether it's a first responder decompressing following a tough call, or a member of the community looking for comfort and support.

"Both in the emergency and non-emergency setting, she has done a vast amount of work," Haerter explained. "The calls that she has been at that have involved great property loss or death, when it's appropriate, we introduce that as an option. Much like you say 'Is there somebody that we can call? Is there a company we need to notify for you? Can we help you with insurance? Would you like to talk with our chaplain, or would you like to see a therapy dog?' That immediate need as far as that thing that's going to make people feel better right now is usually the dog."

Childs says that impact can be just as big on the first responders the dog encounters.

"When Tesla comes along, you see that just happy smiling dog face and it's amazing the barriers that break down," Childs said. "She brings the calm in situations that sometimes can be pretty ramped up and difficult and emotional."

Chief Matt Fennig has noticed the difference, calling Tesla a 'wonderful addition' to his staff.

"She helps in all different ways. First and foremost, she is there to be a calm, listening ear after difficult calls. Her demeanor instantly brings a sense of calmness to often very difficult and chaotic events," Fennig said. "She is also there to assist staff in many other ways, mainly dealing with stressors that are not related to our line of work."

According to Childs, she serves a positive resource he hopes to see other departments implement.

"Any type of resources allocated towards an animal like Tesla is, in my opinion, going to be money well spent," Childs said. "The more departments are focused on their wellness of their employees and the more we're openly engaging in conversations about things like suicide, and we have animals like Tesla who can come along and while you're talking about a difficult subject you can be petting and kind of calming down by a resource like that, it's fantastic. It's only going to help."

A resource, with big eyes and a wagging tail, making a positive impact everywhere she goes.

"It's so incredible how she does and the level at which she performs on a daily basis when it really matters," Haerter said. "I wish I could be that good all the time."

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