Story and Photos by Nancy McGuire. Video by AB Barnett and Angelica Villa.
Dallas Doing Good has had the privilege of partnering with the Communities Foundation of Texas for North Texas Giving Day over the past few years, but this year, we are doing it Texas BIG. It is the 15th anniversary of the largest community giving event in the nation, so we have selected 15 organizations to highlight leading up to Giving Day on September 21. Early giving kicked off on September 1.
The relationship between humans and animals is unique and goes beyond love and loyalty. Many studies have been conducted to understand the symbiotic effect that can develop. None have been studied more than the relationship between man and dog. It has long been established that dogs have developed “hypersocial” traits that allow them to form emotional attachments, unlike other animals. On the other hand, humans benefit from the relationship through a dog’s ability to help us release oxytocin, a hormone associated with not only happiness, but bonding and affection.
Janeen Baggette, founder of K9’s for Freedom and Independence, recognized the mutual benefits long ago and has turned her lifelong passion into a mission to help others.
Dogs have always played an essential part in Janeen Baggette’s life, stretching from a rough childhood to her years in military service. Trained as a combat air medic, she witnessed the heroic actions of the K9 teams while serving in the Middle East, and those images never left her.
When she returned stateside, Janeen worked as a corrections officer and in other policing jobs. She always had a love for dogs and recognized the incredible contributions they made in policing work, so she sought to become a certified canine K9 handler specializing in dogs trained to sniff out narcotics and bomb materials. She later became a member of the Department of Defense (DoD) policing unit deployed to help with natural disasters such as the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and other federal response team assignments.
Through these assignments, Janeen recognized that not only did these special dogs do the job they are trained to do, but they also had a tremendously calming effect on the morale and welfare of the officers within the department whenever the dogs were around.
“Few people truly understand the stresses police officers and staff face each day, internally and externally,” Janeen says. “I saw colleagues and friends suffer from the mental strain of the job. These trained dogs helped soothe the mental fatigue many officers and staff were dealing with.”
For a long time, the stigma of mental fatigue and seeking therapy was considered a weakness among those involved in the police force. But over the years, more of those in leadership positions have become enlightened on the need for mental health initiatives for their employees.
Janeen’s “aha!” moment came when she saw the need and determined she could help. Thus, K9’s for Freedom and Independence was born. She had attained the skills as a trained handler and knew she wanted to get more dogs trained and placed in law enforcement.
Most of the dogs Janeen trains are rescues, while others are donated. One such dog, Blue, was trained and is now in service for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department in New York state. Coming from the City of Sherman’s animal services department, Blue is a highly respected asset working to improve community relations and department morale.
“My dogs are trained to be more than therapy dogs,” Janeen says. The dogs are trained to detect levels of hormones humans emit in stressful situations. Her dogs must have the temperament to handle chaotic situations and mass crowds. They are considered both trauma and wellness dogs, ensuring the health and wellbeing of residents and first responders.
Most of Janeen’s dogs are placed in Critical Incident Stress Management Teams (CIRT). Their handlers are also highly trained not only to oversee the dog’s interactions, but also to work with affected individuals. Often times, traumatized individuals express emotions to dogs that they may not be able to other individuals, and the handlers must be trained to respect these interactions.
Although Janeen did not personally travel to Uvalde after the school shooting, she was informed that other CIRT-trained dogs from nearby departments were brought to the safe location of surviving students to bring them comfort and help them cope with their emotions.
Fortunately, the Fort Worth Police Department has two K9 for Freedom and Independence trained dogs and handlers assigned to their Crisis Intervention Teams.
Sgt. Jacob Hopson, supervisor of the K9 team, expressed how invaluable Wookie and Echo are to their outreach efforts and internal mental health programs.
“Dogs don’t tell secrets,” Sgt. Hopson says. Dogs can elicit feelings humans can’t always express in words.
Sgt. Hopson says that one day, Echo attended a career day outreach event at a local kindergarten. When Echo was left to roam the classroom and interact with the students, she kept circling back to one student and performed her “alert” stance, indicating she picked up the scent of stress hormones. When Sgt. Hopson later talked to the teacher to inform her of the dog’s action, she relayed that the student had been dealing with several problems at home. This experience validated to all that Echo is always “on duty.”
While running her training non-profit is her primary objective, Janeen is networking with other organizations to help train more CIRT K9 handlers and educating North Texas about the benefits these dogs bring to their departments and communities. Ultimately, she would like to create a state-wide task force so the dogs can be sent wherever their work would be most beneficial.