As Cortana slowly strode toward firefighter Justin Leal, those in attendance Saturday at Greater Naples Fire Rescue Station 75 were silent.
The only sound that could be heard came from the fully-geared-up Leal’s oxygen mask as he waited for the labrador retriever service dog.
Cortana was immediately comfortable with Leal. It could’ve had something to do with the piece of hot dog Leal had in his hand. The high-value treat for the service dog was for a job well done.
It was all part of a training exercise for eight service dogs and eight volunteers from Topaz Assistance Dogs. The exercise is used to familiarize the service dogs, most of which were 7 months old and others who were a year and two years old, with the firefighters who someday could assist them with providing aid to their partners.
While firefighters and EMTs are first responders, service dogs are on the front lines every day for those with disabilities including mobility issues, autism, seizures, and diabetes.
“There’s no question they’re their first,” EMS Battalion Chief Dwayne Watson said. “Any medical emergency call is a high-stress situation. If it’s someone depending on a service dog, anything that can be done to familiarize them with us can help make the situation easier, especially while we’re trying to treat that medical condition, is a good thing.”
The Topaz volunteers and trainees also had an ulterior motive for their visit Saturday.
A brush fire that started May 22, and at one point reached 1,500 acres in the Golden Gate Estates, forced the evacuation of the Topaz kennel, located on 12th Avenue Southeast very close to where the fire started near Desoto Boulevard South and 14th Avenue Southeast.
Firefighters from a few different companies, including Greater Naples, prevented the fire from damaging any of the main structures at the kennel.
Topaz founder Shoshana Tanner and other volunteers were in Orlando for a training session when the fire started. Volunteer Maya Maranz alongside a retired firefighter made her way to the kennel to find the fire was close to the main structures.
Maran evacuated six dogs and a cat in her Toyota Camry to Big Cypress German Sheperd Rescue while two goats were taken to Alyssa’s Animal Sanctuary.
While Tanner is happy to be back at Topaz’s five-acre property now that the fires are contained, the organization wanted to show its gratitude. It made a sign saying, ” Thank you firefighters for saving our kennel.” The sign was displayed prominently on the company’s fire engine.
“We wanted to make sure they know how thankful we are for their hard work,” Tanner said. “They’re heroes all the time.”
Leal spent three long days on duty fighting the brush fire and was happy for an easier but no less important assignment before he received two much-needed days off.
“This is what we signed up for,” Leal said.
During his five-year career, most of his interactions with service dogs have been with those whose partners suffer from seizures. However, he said every situation is different and welcomed Saturday’s training.
“You never know. You may come into a situation where someone is unconscious and the only one who can lead you to them is their service dog,” Leal said.
Tanner said Topaz breeds its dogs and starts training at three days old.
Service dogs Alexa, Siri, and Cortana were in the midst of their second training with firefighters and EMS. Max, Fiona, and Lake were first-timers.
“These situations could really be the difference between life and death for the client and dog,” Tanner said. “You hope it never happens but you have to prepare for the worst.”
In addition to meeting a firefighter in full gear, the service dogs took pictures on the company engine with their new firefighter friends and were subjected to the loud sirens from the engine.
Nearly all of the service dogs showed no signs of fear from the blare of the sirens and were rightfully rewarded.
“It was a very successful training. We’re looking forward to another trip,” Tanner said. “But as you can see most of them are pretty tired. It was pretty eventful. Now they’re ready to call it a day.”