‘She can literally smell that stress.’ Charlotte Fire Dept. therapy dog helps firefighters deal with trauma


(FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – The Charlotte Fire Department has been putting a real emphasis on mental health. One year ago, Charlotte Fire started its own K-9 program specifically to help firefighters and any staff members deal with stress and trauma.

Lady Catherine, or Cat, as the crew likes to call her, is a certified therapy dog and has been with the department for just over a year.

Cat’s handler, Rick Dunton, said that the past 14-months have been particularly difficult with the pandemic, social justice issues, and the uncertainty that many families have been facing. All of that is on top of what’s already a stressful job.

Dunton said, “Our members have done CPR on children, on babies and that takes a lot out of people.”

Firefighters at Station 10 told FOX 46 that having Cat around really brightens their day.

“As soon as I see her come out of the car “I’m like Cat, hey how you doing?’” said firefighter EJ McCormick.

Dunton explained that Cat is trained to literally sniff out stress hormones and figure out who they’re coming from.

“She doesn’t know what’s going on, she doesn’t know whether it’s problems at home, stress with your kids, whether it’s job-related stress, she just knows that you’re not feeling good,” Dunton said.

In her year of service, Cat has visited every fire station and every shift at CFD. She’s also completed over 150 Wellness Therapy visits. Sometimes people seek Cat out, others she goes to them.

Dunton said, “She can literally smell that stress on people and she wants to help. She’ll go over and lean up against someone and kind of just melt into them, and let them love on her and just say ‘Hey tell me all about it.’”

McCormick confirms that she’s a good listener.

“Regardless of what was going on, the things that were changing, it was cool to just be able to hang out with her you know roll around on the floor get dog hair all over you it was fun,” he said.

Cat has also been helping out with fire safety education programming and is proving to be very engaging with kids.

“If she can do the stop, drop, and roll, the crawl low under smoke, the feel the door for heat, going to a meeting place and sitting there and waiting for the whole family. If she can do all of that, they’ll remember that for the rest of their lives,” Dunton said.

Cat’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time.

Dunton said, “To say that this year has been the most challenging year in a fire service history, is probably not an understatement. We had asked more of our members than we ever have in the past and our members have risen to that challenge.”

The K-9 program is just one way Dunton said that CFD is investing in themselves.

“Mental health is part of your physical health, if you are not mentally healthy, it has all kinds of physical repercussions on you,” he said.

The K-9 program is funded entirely through grants, fundraising, and donations.

Charlotte Fire will be adding a second therapy dog, Phoenix, in the coming months.

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