Sonoma Valley Fire District welcomes Koda the therapy dog

Koda will live with his handler, Sonoma Valley Fire Marshall Trevor Smith and help combat the growing stress that firefighters face on the job.|

The newest addition at Sonoma Valley Fire District had months of training, but don’t expect him to pick up a hose. Koda is a therapy dog, specially trained to help firefighters cope with the rising stress of their workload.

“We’re obviously doing a line of work that's inherently dangerous,” said Trevor Smith, Koda’s handler and Sonoma Valley’s Fire Marshal. “As we're driving into an area, everyone else is driving out.”

Koda arrived on Thursday, a graduate of Paws for Life K9 Rescue program that is designed to address the growing concerns around mental health among first responders — particularly among paramedics and firefighters – as part of the fire district’s Canine Therapy & Peer Support Program.

Climate change has created larger and more deadly wildfires across the west, forcing firefighters to take on more physically and mentally grueling work, which can have lasting impacts. That caused the California Professional Firefighter Association, a statewide organization with 3,500 members, to launch the California Fire Service Task Force on Behavioral Health in 2016 to address post-traumatic street disorder (PTSD) and work-related trauma experienced by firefighters.

Smith said the stressors facing firefighters were amplified by the 2017 Nuns and Tubbs fires, which traumatized the community after residents were forced to evacuate, some barely escaping the flames that engulfed homes in Glen Ellen and Kenwood, which killed one Valley resident and decimated thousands of structures. Firefighters worked around the clock to protect their community, while witnessing the tragic impact on local residents.

“It wasn't until we had our fires in 2017 and felt how they impacted our community directly; that was a whole different experience for us,” Smith said. “When I would go to any random city in California, I never contemplated what the guys that worked in that community were going through. It wasn't until 2017 where I realized that.”

Since then, Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre said the local fire district has put more focus on mental health, during a period when death by suicide is on the rise among first responders nationwide. “Public safety personnel are five times more likely to suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression than their civilian counterparts, leading to higher rates of suicide,” according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

“We've taken that to heart, especially following the fires in 2017,” Akre said. “We were the first department to support and sign on with First Responder Resiliency.”

First Responder Resiliency is a Santa Rosa nonprofit focused on the emotional well-being of first responders and their families. The organization has trained hundreds of firefighters across California.

As Sonoma Valley Fire continues to expand its behavioral health programs, Koda is the latest addition. The 18-month-old golden retriever will offer comfort and support during any traumatic events firefighters may experience in the line of duty. According to a UCLA study, therapy dogs can help lower anxiety, reduce loneliness and offer a burst of serotonin, the brain chemical linked to happiness.

“We see some horrific things and we see them often… Everyone has a cup of what they can hold and our cups fill up pretty quick,” Smith said.

Between 2014-22, 56.7% of firefighters witnessed a “major morally injurious event,” such as child abuse or injuries from domestic violence, according to a report by the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, the only national organization that tracks the number of deaths by suicide among firefighters.

“The biggest stresses that we have to deal with are the destruction of families and medical emergencies, traumatic injuries, anything that relates to children or violence. Those are some of the hardest things for me, personally,” Smith said.

With the support of the district, Smith applied to the Paws for Life K9 Rescue program and was matched with Koda, who is trained to recognize symptoms of stress and provide emotional support through various techniques he learned during nine months of training.

“Koda has been actively in training since July of last year,” Smith said. “For example, Koda can pop up in someone's lap and provide deep abdominal pressure. It's kind of a cuddle, but it's designed to apply deep abdominal stimulation for extended periods of time for someone going through something that's significantly stressful.”

Smith spent five days with program trainers to learn basic obedience and handler training. “The animal was trained for much longer than myself,” he said — training that will continue through Koda’s life.

As Koda’s handler, Smith will “provide therapeutic support to the membership and community during critical needs” around the clock, according to a Sonoma Valley Fire District press release.

“We've worked with other organizations who have brought animals into the fire stations for us, and we saw a huge amount of value in that,” Smith said. “When you have an animal that is very mellow and relaxed and he’s just there … that’s where the most value is for people.”

While physical health has been the primary focus of the Sonoma Valley Fire District over the past 25 years, Akre said, Koda is part of a deliberate effort to address the mental well being of firefighters and other first responders.

“We’re super excited about having Koda to be part of our fire family. And I'm really appreciative of Trevor and his efforts to make this happen,” Akre said.

Thanks to donations from the Paws for Life K9 Rescue, The Gary Sinise Foundation, Sonoma Veterinary Clinic, and Groomingdales Pet Grooming & Spa, the Sonoma Valley Fire District’s furry new companion offers a modern and approachable way to tackle mental health.

“Anything we can do to support the mental and physical health of our staff — that's what we're looking at doing,” Smith said. “This program was a great opportunity.”

Contact Chase Hunter at and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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