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Therapy dog helps Covington 911 Center dispatchers cope with stressful work
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Annie, a golden doodle trained as a therapy dog, has helped 911 Center staff members since August. (Special | 911 Center)

COVINGTON, Ga. — A mixed-breed dog is helping a group of Newton County first-responders get through what can often be emotionally taxing and stressful work.

Covington-Newton County 911 officials have used the skills of a trained therapy dog named Annie since August to help its staff members cope with answering some of the many emotionally draining calls they receive, said director Trudy Henry.

"Just her sheer presence has made such an impact on the dispatchers," she said.

"When they come into work now and they see Annie, they smile, happy to be there," she said. "Her presence just brings a different attitude to the radio room."

Operators in the 911 center often are faced with working to get accurate information from concerned and sometimes frantic callers on the scene of a violent act or car wreck and then relaying the information to authorities — in addition to telling someone how to do CPR or how to handle a stab wound until EMTs arrive.

Annie also has helped relieve the stress on staff members forced to take on extra work that likely would be done by others if all available positions in the department were filled, Henry said.

It has only 21 positions filled out of 33 total positions in the department's budget, Henry said.

Having an undermanned department is part of a trend for public safety agencies as employees seek jobs which are less stressful and more plentiful than in recent years, Henry said.

"It's the stress of the new world we're living in," Henry said.

She said the past couple of years have been "traumatic" at times as staff members dealt with the pressures the COVID-19 pandemic produced in addition to their regular dealings with county residents in tragic situations.

"I guess over the past couple of years we had a couple of incidents that occurred throughout the county — kind of dramatic calls — that affected the dispatchers. Someone or other who take the bigger calls take the bigger burden," she said.

Henry said she was not personally a "dog person" but had seen how some dogs others brought in to visit the center affected her department's dispatchers' work.

She said she saw how one former 911 dispatcher's support dog visiting the center helped change the "attitude" of the staff.

It led Henry to consider having a therapy dog live in the 911 center to help the staff during its round-the-clock work, she said.

"I just knew this was something to consider," Henry said. "Seeing the difference that it made and seeing the calming effect — just being able to put your hand on the dog and being able to pet it just changes a person's perspective."

She said one of the goals for her dispatchers in 2020 was to have a full-time therapy dog in the center.

"When they first started that, I was like, 'That'll never work,'" she said. "As time progressed and then with COVID and the pandemic coming in — the mental stability of our people — we saw that this is probably a good time.

"Just watching how a dog can change a person's attitude and perspective and, kind of, the way they feel about things (I thought) there might be something to this," she said.

After using another therapy dog for awhile, Henry said she found Annie and a former staff member helped find a program that trained her to be a therapy dog.

Annie came from Covington-based 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 to the 911 center. The pandemic and some other factors — such as a reorganization of the center — caused some disruptions to the timeline for introduction of a therapy dog, she said.

"Things were up in the air for a little while," Henry said.

However, Henry said she was able to receive approval from city and county governments before she brought Annie in for support for the 21 staff members.

Annie has begun to settle in as both emotional support for the 911 staff and in public appearances representing the department, which is jointly operated by Covington and Newton County governments.

Henry said Annie formerly went home with her nightly but Annie now typically does not like leaving the center for any reason.

"When I go up and get her at the center, she gets mad when I put her in the car," Henry said. "She'll turn her back to me and won't look at me."

But Annie typically becomes more friendly as she adjusts to meeting strange people, Henry said.

Her travels have included accompanying Henry to meetings at Covington City Hall and the Fire Department. She also supported Henry during presentations to civic groups like the Kiwanis Club.

She also traveled to Georgia State University's Newton campus recently as part of an educational session for criminal justice students about the benefits of therapy dogs, Henry said.

She said the 911 Center is working to gain Annie's American Kennel Club certification as a therapy dog.

The test for certification includes being able to ignore outside influences, such as children playing nearby, and focusing on the person the dog is assigned to support, she said.

"She has received her behavioral training," Henry said. "The therapy part comes in with the way she treats people and how she interacts when she's around people."

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Annie, a golden doodle trained as a therapy dog, has helped 911 Center staff members since August. (Special | 911 Center)