Special Sections : West Fire

Monday, Aug 16 2010 04:35 PM

West Fire was first assignment for local ‘therapy dog’

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Tehachapi resident Constance Williams with Sir Duke, a 3-year-old golden retriever, who became well-known during the recent West Fire. Sir Duke is the only disaster-stress-relief dog certified by Therapy Dogs International in Kern County.

Sir Duke, a 3-year-old golden retriever, isn’t the only dog in town.

He might be top dog, however, when it comes to helping Tehachapi residents cope with stress.

In the days following the West Fire, Sir Duke and his handler, Constance Williams, who lives in Tehachapi, visited fire victims, firefighters and American Red Cross shelter volunteers around town.

It was Sir Duke’s first disaster as a stress-relief dog, and it would be an understatement to say he was a welcomed guest, Williams said.

His calm demeanor and strong nervous system make him a prime example of what a stress-relief dog should be, Kempe said.

And for Williams, training him has been easier than expected.

“He just came that way,” she said. Sir Duke was certified as a disaster-stress-relief dog by Therapy Dogs International in June.

Williams said fire victims had the chance to pet and play with Sir Duke, and several firefighters asked if they could keep him at the fire command post for an entire day“He was as necessary for the staff and the Red Cross volunteers as he was for the victims,” Williams said. “He was there for virtually everyone.”

Even in the chaotic atmosphere of the shelter, everyone near Sir Duke — including those who had lost their homes or animals — would stop to pet him.

“It’s really very good for the dogs as well as the people,” Kempe said.

Kempe said therapy dogs like Sir Duke are able to connect with others in a way humans can’t.

“What the dogs do, people cannot,” she said. “The dogs create an opening. The dogs are non-judgmental. They sense a need of the people.”

Sir Duke won’t be around just for disasters like the West Fire, though.

Williams said she takes him to a nursing home in Bear Valley Springs about once a month.

Training together

Sir Duke and Williams both submitted to many hours of testing before being labeled a disaster-stress-relief duo.

Of the 13 dogs in Sir Duke’s testing group this summer, seven made it through the 12 hours of training.

Williams, who has a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Iowa, underwent psychological testing to determine if she was prepared for disaster situations.

Williams said she was confident Sir Duke could do his duties in almost any environment.

“He could go anywhere,” she said.

Therapy Dogs International

Dogs first must be certified as therapy dogs before passing a series of tests to become disaster-stress-relief dogs, said Therapy Dogs International President Ursula Kempe.

Of the 21,000 therapy dogs in the U.S. and Canada, Sir Duke is the only one in Kern County that is certified as a disaster-stress-relief dog, Kempe said.

Aside from Sir Duke, the nearest disaster-stress-relief dogs — all 14 of them — are in the greater Los Angeles area, Kempe said.

Kempe,  who lives in New Jersey, said roughly 50 percent of dogs pass the first round of testing.

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