MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Dalmatians and firefighters date back decades. In fact, they’re the official fire house dog. But Memphis firefighters are finding new responsibilities for their four-legged friends.
Patricia Belt has a strong relationship with the Dalmatians at her fire house. She even has two more of her own at home.
“Izzy is 8, she will be 8 in February. Astro is 5-years-old,” she said.
She rescued all four Dalmatians and trained them to teach children fire safety, like stop, drop and roll.
She also uses their unconditional love to help firefighters like Kyle Elliot.
“The firefighter mentality is, ‘We are tough.’ We don’t like to talk about things,” Elliot said.
The Dalmatians are certified therapy dogs.
“We have no one to talk to a lot of times. Guy will come in and just talk away to the dogs. It gets that burden off their shoulders,” Belt said.
The pups travel to various fire stations after traumatic call and work with those who were injured on the job.
They also meet behind closed doors with paramedics and firefighters suffering from post-traumatic stress.
When Gina Sweat became the Fire Director in 2016, the Dalmatians caught her attention.
“I realized they even had a bigger purpose. There are things they could do for the firefighters and the city of Memphis,” she said.
She’s now hired a team to see how they can expand the therapy dog program.
“If we could have therapy dogs that come back the next week or two later and go by and visit the firefighters to see how they’re doing and provide them a little more comfort,” Sweat said.
But there’s something that makes this relationship special. While you may not notice right away, the dogs are all facing their own struggles.
“30 percent of Dalmatians are born deaf in one or both ears,” Sweat said.
All four of Belt’s Dalmatians are deaf.
“Naturally I started communicating with hand signals and sign language,” Sweat said.”Just because you’re different or have a disability doesn’t mean you can’t find your purpose.”
Recent studies estimate that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions that can include depression and PTSD. That’s compared to 20 percent in the general population.
If you or someone you know needs help, call The Memphis Crisis Center’s 24-hour hotline at (947)-274-7477.