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Petting therapy: SLODOG's Caring Canines provide stress relief to firefighters 

They show up in teams. Fur with deep blue handkerchiefs and jeans with light blue T-shirts walk into the Mid-State Fairgrounds around the afternoon shift change.

Firefighters wait in the food line—either coming in from a long day out on the Chimney Fire at Lake Nacimiento or preparing for a long night of flame fighting—and some of the Santa Lucia Open Dog Obedience Group’s (SLODOG) Caring Canines teams walk the length of that line, wagging tails and smiling to provide a little stress relief. 

click to enlarge STRESS RELIEVER:  Penny, a German Shepard in SLODOG’s Caring Canines program, helps firefighters on the Chimney Fire de-stress between shift changes at base camp in Paso Robles’ Mid-State Fairgrounds. - PHOTO COURTESY OF TINA PALMER
  • STRESS RELIEVER: Penny, a German Shepard in SLODOG’s Caring Canines program, helps firefighters on the Chimney Fire de-stress between shift changes at base camp in Paso Robles’ Mid-State Fairgrounds.

“It’s a very high-stress job that they have. They work long hours; they’re away from their families; they’re away from their dogs,” SLODOG President Pamela Phelps said of the firefighters. 

She worked with Cal Fire to organize the visits from the Caring Canines program, and she said the first time they took the dogs into fire camp it seemed like everyone was a bit hesitant. But within 15 minutes of being there, that hesitation was gone. Petting a dog can help decrease stress hormones and increase what Phelps calls “happy hormones,” things like endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. 

“Everyone appreciated them coming out. … The dogs, they lift our spirits,” said Stacey Nolan, a fire prevention specialist and public information officer assigned to the Chimney Fire from the Cal Fire Fresno-Kings Unit. Her mother’s been watching her dog for the past month as Nolan’s moved around the state from fire to fire. “It’s a thank you in a different way. A nice, fuzzy dog, … I’ve not been at home for a month, so it’s nice.” 

But not just any dog can be a therapy dog in the Caring Canines program. The canine and the human both need to have the right temperament, according to Phelps. They need to be calm, personable, and social with both dogs and humans. The pooch needs to be American Kennel Club (AKC) certified as a Canine Good Citizen before they can qualify to train as a therapy dog. 

Tina Palmer and her 80-pound 4-year-old red and black German shepherd Penny—who has no American German shepherd blood in her—got the AKC certification in April and started training to be on a Caring Canine team. They’ve visited assisted living facilities, Cal Poly for finals week, and fire camp to provide therapy to those who need it. The pair is also working toward becoming a part of SLODOG’s Reading 2 Rover program, which takes dogs to elementary schools so children can read aloud to furry companions.

“It’s a good feeling inside to know that you’re bringing joy,” Palmer said. “As soon as they walk up to the dog, you can see their eyes fix on it and their faces change.” 

To find out more about SLODOG’s Caring Canines program, visit  

Fast facts

• Heritage Oaks Bank is hosting its 18th annual Family Fun Run on Sept. 25 at Paso Robles City Park. All Fun Run race entry fees will be donated to Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County, the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo, and the Paso Robles Public Library Foundation. Last year, Fun Run entry fees generated more than $21,000 for local nonprofits. There will be a 10K, a 5K, and 1-mile run, and a diaper dash. To learn more about the race and to register, visit

The Flour House Pizza Bar and Pasteria Restaurant is hosting a relief fundraiser to benefit the Italian Red Cross in response to the recent earthquake that took place in Central Italy. The 6.2-magnitude earthquake followed by aftershocks happened on Aug. 24, claiming more than 280 lives and flattening villages, forcing more than 2,000 Italians to seek refuge in makeshift camps. Owners Gessica and Alberto Russo will donate 50 percent of all the proceeds made on Sept. 2 between 11:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. to the Red Cross. Call 544-5282 or email [email protected] for more information. The restaurant is located at 690 Higuera St. in downtown SLO. 

• The National Parks Service turned 100 in August. Celebrate the centennial on the Central Coast by visiting the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara, Carrizo Plain National Monument between the California Valley and Cuyama, or Pinnacles National Monument Reserve outside of Soledad. Fourth-graders and their families can get into those places (and other federal lands and waters, too) for free through the Every Kid in a Park program. Visit to learn how. That’s a lot of ground to cover. Get crackin’!  

Editor Camillia Lanham wrote this week’s Strokes & Plugs. Send news tips and tidbits to [email protected].

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