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Tank joins the station 21 team

There’s a new face at a local firehouse – and it’s not what you would expect to see among the turnout gear and fire engines.

Tank is a two-year-old, roughly 75-pound English Labrador, a ‘Peer Support K9’ who is now in service at Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District Station 21, located in the Airport District of Modesto. He works and lives with his handler, Fire Captain Jon McManus, going to work when McManus does and spending shifts at the fire station.

“Tank came from Performance K9 Training in Carlsbad, California,” McManus explained. “The funding for Tank came from Thor’s Hope in Incline Village; it’s a foundation that donates money to service dogs, peer support and emotional support dogs.”

McManus said that Tank went through an estimated 1,000 hours of training over 14 months to be qualified as a Peer Support K9.

He is around people all the time, but Tank has learned that McManus is the one he takes commands from; the one he listens to and obeys.

“It was about behavior and obedience,” McManus said of the training. “He’s ultra-socialized to people but he’s also trained to keep his composure at all times.”

As a support dog, Tank is available to firefighters at the station and, as McManus noted, can provide some much needed relief and unconditional love after crews return from a tough call. Even a ‘routine’ call can impact firefighters, and having a dog waiting at the station is a way to provide a calm and soothing effect.

“We are exposed to so many adrenaline rushes in our profession,” the fire captain said. “Our body starts producing cortisol; cortisol is basically the building block for anxiety and depression.”

Tank can help provide a natural ‘antidote’ to that cortisol.

“The physical touch, the love that animals show actively decreases those levels,” McManus said of the science behind bringing a peer support K9 aboard. “We’re being proactive in our approach.”

McManus said there are two other dogs in service with the Modesto Fire Department already, but Tank is the first to be assigned to Stanislaus Consolidated. Hudson is stationed at Modesto Station 10 and Fuse is at Modesto Station 17. McManus said he approached Fuse’s handler to learn more about the program and was able to follow that interest all the way through to being able to have Tank join the team.

Stanislaus Consolidated has five fire stations; their administrative services are under the umbrella of Modesto Fire Department but the firefighters work for Stanislaus Consolidated. Along with Station 21 that serves as home base for Tank, there is Station 22 in Empire, Station 23 near the Fruityard, Station 24 in the Waterford/LaGrange area and Station 26 in Riverbank. When needed, McManus said he and Tank can respond to any station where firefighters might be in need of some support from the gentle giant.

“He’s a big boy,” McManus agreed of the appropriately named Tank. “I am available on my days off to come in with him if needed.”

Though only in service since August of this year, McManus said the value of the English lab around the station is apparent.

“I am seeing benefits already, changes in the group,” he said of firefighters being more positive and upbeat when they get a chance to interact with Tank. “There are more smiles and it is so apparent when people come in (to the station) and take that breath.”

Tank has also been outside the station on visits to lend support and he has a special work vest that is utilized when he is on duty. It has patches on it to let people know he is a working dog, they need to ask to pet him, and he has the Stanislaus Consolidated patch as well.

“He’s been to badge pinnings, he has visited a cancer center in Stockton, he has been to Doctors Hospital a couple of times,” McManus explained. “He is out there being loved and the benefits he unknowingly brings to people … they’re focused on the dog and it’s really cool to watch people drop their guard and just enjoy him.”

McManus had to be approved as a Peer Support K9 handler before Tank was assigned to him, with plenty of stipulations that come along with taking on the job.

“They have to make sure you’re someone who will continue his training; they require 30 to 60 minutes per day to do obedience training,” McManus said of one of the conditions. “And he goes everywhere with me because we want him comfortable in every situation.”

That means Tank heads to the grocery store, to get the kids at school, runs errands around town, whatever is on the agenda for the day.

Tank understands that once the vest is put on, he is on duty, but McManus said he also enjoys the downtime when he can just be a dog.

“His favorite thing in the world is his ball,” McManus said of the English lab loving the chance to run after the ball and bring it back, only to get excited to fetch it again.

“We will go to the park and walk, I will let him be a dog,” said McManus. “But when he puts his vest on, he knows it’s time to go to work.”

McManus and Tank recently made a quick visit to some Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department deputies and said introducing Tank to as many people as possible helps with his continued socialization and ability to bring his ‘feel good’ attitude to those throughout the area.

About the only thing Tank doesn’t do is respond to calls with McManus; there is no way to secure him in the department rigs and, with a hefty price tag, he is definitely precious cargo. When they do respond to a call, Tank is crated at the station and is familiar with that routine. When the firefighters are at the station during a shift, he has a day bed in the common room and enjoys interacting with everyone on duty.

“We’re in the infancy of this program in California,” admitted McManus of the fire department dog as a peer support K9. “It would be wonderful to have one on each of our shifts.”

Station 21 has A, B and C shifts, with personnel manning the station 24/7 on a rotating schedule.

Having a dedicated dog for each shift is a long-term goal and while adding Tank to the team was definitely an investment of money and time, McManus said it has been well worth it.

“He has been a great addition to the department and I’ve already seen some great changes with the personnel as far as attitude; overall, there’s more happiness, more smiles,” McManus summarized. “His job is to give us that ‘out’ from all the negative things we see. We can hit the re-set switch; it allows us to disconnect for a few and focus our energies on the dog.”