Rescuing the rescuers

O ne of several, patient working dogs who assisted the presenters

One of several, patient working dogs who assisted the presenters

VCA clinic focuses on working dogs

Things were bustling at the VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists (VCA NWVS) facility in Clackamas, as it presented a first of its kind training last month.  Service dogs were escorted in and out of hallways while two rooms held capacity police, fire, medical techs and other public service personnel all focused on one thing:  how to best care for their K9 officers in case of emergency.

While VCA NWVS has offered free public animal first aid and CPR classes since 2009, the recent training was the first solely devoted to working dogs serving with first responders, SWAT teams and police and fire departments. 

The partnership between these agencies and VCA NWVS began when Captain Jeffrey Dana of the Gresham Fire Department contacted the veterinary clinic to request a training for working dogs.  While Dana figured four to eight people might participate, over 60 had registered within hours of the class being posted.

VCA NWVS had to cap the class at 40, but will conduct an additional class in the spring.  Heidi Houchen, DVM, one of the course presenters, says the level of interest didn’t surprise her given her experience with public service agencies.  “These individuals, the EMS’s, the fire, the police — they’re passionate about their animals.  They want to know the best [forms of treatment] and if they can do more.  We feel really honored that they asked us to help them.” 

Several agencies were represented at last month’s training, including personnel from Salem, Springfield and Vancouver.

VCA NWVS Staff demonstrate bandaging techniques

VCA NWVS Staff demonstrate bandaging techniques

Capt. Dana also appreciates the partnership.  “They’ve been really good about working with us.  You know, these dogs end up going home with somebody every night, so they become part of the family.  We thought, we have to take care of these guys just like we take care of our own.”

The intensive four-hour workshop involves lecture and lab time, covering everything from preventative care, triage and bandaging techniques to dealing with issues that come with the territory for fire and police dogs, such as dealing with gunshot wounds in the field, smoke inhalation, and exposure to toxins.

“We’ve tried to narrow it down to the working dog and hone it to what they would need,” says Dr. Houchen.  “What are the real specific hazards of a police/fire or EMS dog and what can you do immediately before you get to the veterinary clinic.”  Such scenarios can include when dogs are called to a methamphetamine lab that’s blown up or the possibility of a dog getting into an illicit narcotic during a search.

Melanie Kinne, firefighter and paramedic with the Clackamas Fire Department, says the comprehensive instruction is perfect for this community.  “A lot of us are medics so even though the anatomy is different and there are different applications, the ideas are the same.  This training is great for the guys who have SWAT dogs so they can be aware of their dogs and know everything about their animal so that when something is happening, they can isolate what is normal and what isn’t.”

Dr. Heidi Houchen with VCA NWVS teaches how to perform a wellness check.

Dr. Heidi Houchen with VCA NWVS teaches how to perform a wellness check.

Kinne watched a demo of pressure points on a service dog while others crowded in for a closer look.  All of the men and women were deeply engaged, stepping up to listen to a heartbeat or pulse through a stethoscope, or trying their hand at CPR on a dummy dog.  The medics’ questions were constant, keeping the presenting veterinarians on their toes.  When asked to comment on this high level of engagement, Kinne smiled.  “That’s the culture of this community; we’re not stand back kind of people,” she says before rejoining her group circled around a demo dog.

While the course focuses on working dogs, some departments, like Kinne’s, don’t have a police or fire dog assigned to them.  Nonetheless, firefighters and paramedics often come across injured animals in the course of their work, so knowing how to rescue, treat or otherwise deal with a privately-owned animal is essential.  “You should see what it’s like when you go to a fire scene,” says Dr. Houchen.  “These guys already have the oxygen masks on the cats; they’re already dealing with burns.  They want to learn to do even more before we can get to the site or they can get them to us.”

VCA NWVS Staff and paramedic practice CPR on a dummy dog.

VCA NWVS Staff and paramedic practice CPR on a dummy dog.

“One of the best parts of this job,” Houchen says, “is whether we’re working with the general population or with people who are highly educated in one specific area, people love their pets and want to help them.  The education is my favorite part of the job.”

 To learn more about free first aid classes offered by VCA NWVS, visit

All photos ©Hanmi Meyer/H2Meyer Photography