The firehouse dog is one of the most iconic associations people have with fire departments. In pop culture, you know the fire department is on the way when you hear the sirens wail and see a Dalmatian on a fire truck as it careens down the road.
There hasn’t been a facility dog at the Palm Springs Fire Department for the longest time. That all changed last September when Deputy Fire Chief Jason Loya introduced Ranger, a 2-year-old English Labrador, to the department.
Both Ranger and Loya have very unique missions.
Loya has worked in peer support for more than 20 years. He’s there to listen and offer a shoulder for men and women struggling under the stress and trauma of the job. “I let them know that they’re not alone in going through what they’re going through,” he explains.
Now, after decades at the department, he’s helping usher in a new era designed to combat the stigma of mental illness and put the firefighter/paramedics on a path toward healing. He knows the first and hardest step is getting people to admit they need help.
“Our careers are very demanding, not only physically but mentally,” he says. “To get through the day and make it to the next call, many firefighters may bury feelings of anxiety or depression. In our careers, we have that tough person mentality.”
Those tough exteriors often hide inner turmoil. And Ranger, with his infectious joy, big clumsy paws, and curious wet nose, makes it easier to break down that hard outer shell. Loya considers it a sneaky way of introducing subtle mindfulness practices.
“Seeing the critical calls, getting up multiple times at night, lack of sleep, all those stressors,” often coupled with unhealed childhood and personal trauma, contribute to an epidemic of deaths by suicide among firefighters, Loya said. One study estimates firefighters and police officers are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
Loya got the idea of a facility dog at a conference when he noticed a man with a German Shepherd trained to alert him of impending seizures. In an instant, he recalls, something clicked. Studies show interacting with a dog increases oxytocin, which lowers blood pressure, calms breathing, and reduces the production of stress hormones. If the fire department had one, maybe it could help.
There’s no doubt that help is needed. The day-to-day grind of doing dangerous work may seem like it comes with the job, but Loya says it catches up with you. First responders may not realize just how much mental anguish they’re under when their training teaches them to charge into burning buildings and remain in a constant state of hyper-vigilance in order to survive. It can be difficult to turn off their brain’s constant state of fight-or-flight.
Loya knows firsthand how hard it is to ask for help, having been on the scene during some of the most traumatic calls in city history.
“I was at a point in my career a few years ago where I was having palpitations,” he says. “I was stressed out, my heart was racing. I had eye twitches.” But after getting a clean bill of health, he realized it was the stress of the job.
Loya was the incident commander during a 2016 tour bus crash on Interstate 10 that killed 13 and injured 31 others. Two weeks prior, he saw his colleagues respond to the fatal shooting of Palm Springs police officers Jose “Gil” Vega and Lesley Zerebny. A few months before that, he arrived at a critical call of electrocution in a pool. One person died, and five children were injured. “A room full of kids feeling like they’ve been shocked, it’s traumatizing,” he says.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime calls in such a short amount of time,” he says. “Carrying the weight and burden of guilt and shame just eats us alive.”
Those calls, coupled with personal losses, led to Loya seeking refuge in the Save a Warrior program. The program taught him the mindfulness techniques he uses to this day.
“It changed my life significantly. It helps rewire our brain” and turn off that fight-or-flight response, he explains, adding that he has taken steps to teach the same techniques to other firefighters and even different departments in the city, such as the City Clerk’s office.
Ranger helps with mindfulness too. When firefighters are petting him, they’re in the present moment, grounded and not thinking about the latest call. They’re connecting with a creature who has nothing but unconditional love for them. Loya says he can see firefighters slough off their worries and anxieties, if only for a second.
So far, the duo has focused on the fundamentals. Ranger goes to work with Loya each day, and they visit fire stations and attend special events, often blending into the background as emergency personnel go about their business.
“He’s so well behaved,” says Loya. “You go up to him, and he just wants to lay down, and he gives you his belly, and that’s it. He’s a teddy bear.”
Looking at Ranger’s lovable exterior and ease with people, you’d never guess that hundreds of hours of training have been put into him already. The welcome addition the firefighting family is trained by David Greene at Performance K9 Training near San Diego. Greene is recognized internationally, having trained more than 2,000 service dogs during the past 15 years.
Ranger’s previous owner turned him in after he chewed up the seats of a Range Rover — hence his name. But despite his puppyhood penchant for destruction, Greene knew he had the temperament to be a good therapy dog. Loya and Ranger were brought together by the Thor’s Hope Foundation, which works in partnership with Performance K9’s Firehouse Project.
The Palm Springs Fire Department has been without a K9 since the early 2000s. PSFD Retired Engineer Roland Cook and his dog Bautz made up an accomplished Search and Rescue Team that went to Ground Zero just days after 9/11. Bautz is forever memorialized with other first responders outside the Palm Springs Airport Fire Station. A testament to his loyalty, bravery, and hard work.
Ranger isn’t a Search & Rescue Dog, but he’s rescuing people every day from stress, anxiety, and depression in his small way. He also plays a crucial role in a significant philosophy shift for the department. Leading with empathy and openness helps first responders care for themselves, the thinking goes, and those first responders can better care for the community.
“We’ve really revamped and refocused on developing that more significantly,” Loya says.