The Bristol Press – Okee, Connecticut’s first peer support dog, receives donation from new dog-supporting nonprofit
BRISTOL – When the heroes and the afflicted of a community are unable to turn to therapy, friends or family for comfort in their trauma, where can they turn?
Okee, a mix of herding and hunting dog, is Bristol’s premier peer support dog – and Connecticut.
“His training, in addition to your basic sit, stay and lie down; his job is to go around, if we’re in a room and we’re there for a reason for emotional support, his job is to go around and make friends,” Okee’s main manager said, Bristol firefighter Chris Hayden. “She has a command where she will get up in your lap and let you pet her. It does not exert any pressure on your legs. She takes that pressure and puts it all on her hind legs.
Hayden’s son-in-law is a Southington Police Department staff sergeant and dog handler. He heard about the idea of peer support animals from a local resident whose child had committed suicide. The department felt it would be good to have such an animal with it to help with tragedies in which first responders come into contact. From there, Hayden felt that the Bristol Fire Service could also benefit from such an animal.
Okee is considered a rescued and trained dog by K9 for Warriors, a Ponte Vedra, Florida-based nonprofit that provides service animals to first responders and veterans.
“I think it’s a great idea for the city of Bristol,” Hayden said. “With our peer support team, we can help the citizens of Bristol and our members.”
The manager noted that this was particularly important for mental health support efforts for first responders, as their suicide rates could be high. A firefighter and police officer respond to calls daily and sometimes witness horrific moments that the public often doesn’t see, Hayden continued. Such moments leave their mark.
“I loved the idea,” Bristol Fire Chief Rick Hart said. “I thought it would be a great tool for the department in peer support as well as public education and as an icebreaker to get our public safety and fire prevention message out to the public.”
City officials said Okee’s care will be maintained through community donations and various social media accounts have been created in his name.
“I see it from a bit of a different perspective, as an emerging fire service,” Bristol Mayor Jeff Caggiano said. “In my administration, we hired Chief Hart as soon as we arrived. They have been without a fire chief for many months and to see them get to this point, where the morale of the whole department (is high), it’s great. We had our first firefighter training in town and now bringing in the first peer support dog in the state for this group, it’s pretty cool that our fire department is the one doing it.
The Doggy Wish, a newly formed 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was on hand to donate $500 to Okee’s care Wednesday at the Bristol Fire Department Engine Company Five fire station.
Lisa Galske and Thaon Crocker, co-founders of The Doggy Wish, said their journey to form the band began 18 months ago. The couple began their mission by supporting another dog named Romeo who was blind, diabetic and needed extra care. Because others helped them help Romeo, Galske and Crocker wanted to push those efforts forward. The Doggy Wish officially launched on July 7 and hopes to grant one “wish” per week.
“We’ve been lifelong residents of Bristol and we saw in the paper that the Bristol Fire Department was going to have a dog and we knew it was going to have a huge impact in the community,” Galske said. “We had to make this meaningful wish, which is what we do in our organization, and provide funding to make sure Okee gets off to a good start.”
Okee is the band’s fourth “Wish” project. These supportive efforts can take the form of financial support or provisioning benefits.
It’s clear that Okee is starting to have an impact on those around him, but the impact is perhaps most visible with his main handler.
“I loved this department from the start anyway, but having this opportunity to do it makes it even bigger,” Hayden said. “I’ve been a resident of Bristol all my life, so the opportunity to bring the dog to my community is huge for me.”