Warren County Emergency Medical and Rescue Services (EMS) welcomed a new member in June. His name is Benny and he is a bit of a ruff customer. Don’t fear, though. His bark is worse than his bite. Joe Clark, a captain with the Centertown Fire Department and first responder (EMR) coordinator, has brought Benny on board and he has proven to be a valuable addition to the community’s emergency services, both in action and community outreach.
Benny is part Labrador, part Great Pyrenees and was born in Florida. His previous owners decided, because of his size, they could no longer care for him and he was left at an animal shelter. What could have been the end of a sad story became the beginning of a success story that Warren County is richer because of. While at the shelter, Benny was identified as having the potential to be a working dog in the emergency services field. He was sent to a law enforcement training center and was taught to respond to emergency situations, to perform under stress and how to interact with large crowds and small children. Benny comes with an impressive professional pedigree, having trained alongside dogs who have gone on to serve in law enforcement and fire/rescue agencies across the country.
Clark was introduced to the idea of working with a highly trained K9 while training in Nashville. The experience sparked a desire to add a dog to help local first responders. “Last year, I had the opportunity to train with the Metro Nashville Police Department. They had a K9 (they now have two). They use their K9s for things like critical incidents and peer support. That’s how I learned about the program, so I was connected to the program through Metro PD and was blessed with the opportunity to go,” Clark said.
The process of getting Benny wasn’t as simple as going to pick him up after his training. Clark had to undergo rigorous training as well to ensure he and Benny were a proper fit and to prepare Clark for the challenges of working with a K9.
“My initial idea was to get a K9 to try and help first responders, but while I was there in the program I learned all the amazing things that others are doing with their K9s. Benny and I graduated in June of this year. He was awarded to me and I actually had to go to Florida and go through a training program to get him. This particular training program attracts people from all over the country, so in my class I had everyone from a Florida State Trooper to a deputy sheriff from upstate New York, along with firefighters and medics. First responders have very high rates of things like burnout, divorce, PTSD and, sadly, an alarmingly high suicide rate. For the past few years I’ve been pursuing training to be able to help in those areas and with critical incidents,” Clark said.
While Benny can be all business when the situation calls for it, he is also very personable and serves as a family pet for Joe and his wife, Becky Clark, when off duty. Benny’s affable attitude serves as an effective icebreaker and allows Clark to interact with the public, particularly children, in ways some emergency and law enforcement personnel sometimes find difficult. “Benny is great because he has the opportunity to help all the different people and organizations with whom I interact through my job. I have been very grateful for the way he’s been embraced. The school system in particular has been wonderful, so I’m excited by how well-received he’s been,” Clark said.
Clark is eager for more of the community to get to know Benny and, to that end, has been taking Benny to events such as Warren County High School sporting events, the Warren County A & L Fair and many other community gatherings. Benny even has his own Facebook page, “K9 Benny.” Clark believes Benny’s calming presence is a great benefit for both emergency situations and public relations. Clark said, “Neuroscience tells us that positive interactions with dogs lead to a decrease in stress levels and a corresponding increase in things like oxytocin and endorphins (positive neurochemicals). So, Benny is specifically trained to interact with people and often has the potential to deescalate a bad or stressful situation just by being there. He was actually in training for several months before I arrived and trained with him. The really neat thing about this program is Benny was rescued from an animal shelter and trained to serve in emergency services. That’s part of what makes his story so special; no matter what you’ve been through, you can overcome your past and do positive things.”