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Clifford becomes newest member of Vista Fire Department

VISTA — The newest addition may not have spots, but he does offer comfort and provide excitement.

Clifford is a chocolate Labrador retriever, who is now on duty with the Vista Fire Department. He was donated by the Thor’s Hope Foundation as a facility dog to help the firefighters cope with stress and improve mental health around the department’s six fire houses.

“Clifford is just one tool in that toolbox,” Chief Jeff Hahn said. “It has both broad appeal to our firefighters and to our community members when we bring him out. Even in its infancy, this program is taking off and doing good things.”

Vista Fire Inspector Investigator James Gillespie said Clifford had been in service about month before he was unveiled publicly during a press conference on April 11.

Hahn said the idea for the program came last year when he met Christina Macone-Greene, vice president of the board of directors of Thor’s Hope Foundation (Macone-Greene is also a freelance writer for The Coast News).

The foundation launched its Firehouse Project, which will reach continue to reach out departments across North County, and other areas, to discuss the need or want for a facility dog.

Vista Deputy Fire Chief Ned Vander Pol shows off the newest addition to the department, Clifford, a chocolate Labrador retriever on April 11 at Vista Fire Station 1. Clifford is a facility dog and will help the firefighters deal with everyday stresses. Photo by Steve Puterski

Susan White founded the foundation in 2013 as a way to provide low-income mobility-impaired individuals with a trained service dog. White, who suffers from cerebral palsy, said service dogs have been a part of her life for more than 10 years.

To date, the foundation has placed five dogs with individuals in need, she added.

Hahn and Macone-Greene discussed the benefits of a facility dog and Macone-Greene’s husband, David Greene of Performance K9, trained Clifford. The dog was originally going to be trained as a service dog, but after the conversation with Hahn, Clifford’s path changed, Macone-Greene said.

“We talked about the occupational stresses firefighters face every day,” Macone-Greene said of the meeting with Hahn last year. 

On April 11, David Greene handed off Clifford to Deputy Chief Ned Vander Pol, who will be the dog’s handler and caregiver.

“It’s been fun to see the interaction with Clifford and the firefighters,” he said. “The toxic stress that develops can have long-term negative impacts. All of this interaction and communication can have a positive impact on the firefighters. There is evidence out there … that just even being around animals has a very positive impact.”

Vista firefighters, like many of their peers in San Diego, are also paramedics, said Joshua Corrdao. About 80% of their calls are for non-fire emergencies such as car accidents.

He said they act as a bridge between the field and emergency room to provide triage and other care on route to the hospital, thus saving time for waiting nurses and surgeons.

Those scenes, though, take a toll on firefighters, which is why Clifford was brought on board. Firefighters witness more trauma than the average person and Clifford will be used as an additional approach to help Vista firefighters relax and unwind from the stresses of the job, Macone-Greene said.

“A facility dog is expertly trained in obedience and specialty cues and is used in work settings under the direction of a professional partner or handler,” she added. “The handler is trained in specific techniques, which enable the dog to maintain a calm and polite manner in all situations and to be adaptable to interactions with a variety of people in different situations.”

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