When Kerith the Golden Retriever arrives to visit with firefighters in Marin County, California, both the workers and the dog are gushing.
“She wags her tail and we wag our tails,” says Michelle Detrick, 34, a firefighter for Central Marin Fire. “We get so excited and she gets so excited. It’s really great to have the dogs around to remind us of the happy things.”
In the disaster zones of some of the West Coast wildfires, Kerith, a certified crisis-response therapy dog provides stressed-out firefighters with fuzzy TLC and comfort. Kerith, who turned 2 in April, began life intended as a future Guide Dogs for the Blind pooch. Too friendly and attention-loving to serve in that role, she made a “career change” into a therapy dog and stayed with Heidi Carman, the San Rafael woman who raised her as a puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind.
After Kerith got her certification, Heidi started her as a therapy dog at a local hospital’s ER. Kerith and her human mom visited families and patients in the waiting and treatment areas. There, firefighters and paramedics often entered the ER, and Kerith developed a special fondness for emergency workers. The feeling was mutual, Heidi says, adding Kerith has a soothing effect on the mental health of people in a high-stress profession.
“It’s really clear to me that she is doing exactly what she was meant to do with her life,” says Heidi. When they’re with Kerith, they don’t have to say anything; they can just be with her, just to be OK. She’s really good at sensing when a firefighter is stressed; she will sit really close to them and lean in and … be present with them.“It’s really amazing to watch her do that.”
Amber Henderson, battalion chief for CAL FIRE Employee Support Services, works with fire departments around The Golden State. One of the services she provides to fire departments in need is pet therapy, and Kerith is one of the dogs on her list.
“It’s become pretty popular in the last couple of years,” says Amber, who calls Kerith a beautiful dog that adapts to every firefighter’s individual energy. “There is science-backed information that the oxytocin that humans and dogs release creates a happier sense. I think there is more to it than just that: It’s a little reminder of home, and a little sense of normal life.”
Kerith has a chameleonlike personality that adjusts to fit her audience.
“She’s really good at matching people’s energy,” Heidi says. “With an older elderly person who can’t handle a lot of energy, Kerith will be calm. If a firefighter comes in who … has more energy, then she’ll be more energetic and match his energy.”
Kerith had been visiting workers at fire stations, but when the Woodward Fire broke out in August, she started going every morning to the Marin County base camp,. There she mingled with firefighters either starting their day or ending their evening.
Heidi and Kerith now visit other wildfire areas in California, including the Creek Fire near Fresno. They take road trips and stay in a hotel for a few days providing comfort to lonely, traveling firefighters, who often take pictures of Kerith to send home to their loved ones.
“Those firefighters battling these wildfires are away from their families … and their dogs for like a month at a time,” Heidi says. “They miss them terribly. I think seeing Kerith helps them feel a little bit at home.