In a celebration of service, Project K-9 Hero proudly introduces K-9 Henry, the first-ever Peer Support Working Dog in Orange County, California, as he embarks on a well-deserved retirement. K-9 Henry, certified as a therapy dog in 2015, a Crisis Response Canine in 2016, and a Peer Support K-9 in 2017, has answered over 883 calls for service since the inception of his career. K-9 Henry responded to major crises such as fires, earthquakes, floods, shootings, plane crashes, and more. Some notable instances include the Tubbs Fire, the Thomas Fire, the Paradise Fire, the Montecito Mudslides, Hurricane Harvey, the Las Vegas Shooting, and the Yorba Linda Plane Crash.
As the first Peer Support Working Dog in Orange County, Henry's role extends beyond the ordinary. Peer Support is focused on assisting first responders dealing with traumatic incidents, and Henry's impact goes even further, extending comfort to victims of tragedies by attending events like candlelight vigils to help bring solace to those affected by crisis.
On one of their first deployments together as a Peer Support K-9 Team, Steve Booth, Henry’s handler and a retired Orange County Sergeant, accompanied Henry to a briefing regarding an officer who died by suicide. “Henry took me over to the Sergeant who was about to do the briefing,” Steve said, “who was extremely upset. Henry sat next to him, no touching at all, and the Sergeant reached over to pet him, and you could see the emotions just come out. The Sergeant blurted out his issues and you could just see the stress leave his body and that was amazing. We were hooked from then on.”
Henry's effectiveness as a therapy dog lies in his people-oriented nature and his temperament. Recommended to the role due to his love for people and the ability to engage with them, Henry has provided immeasurable support during critical incident debriefs, offering comfort to officers and first responders dealing with the emotional toll of their service.
Henry's presence has transformed the atmosphere in local offices. His ability to lighten the mood, provide stress relief, and offer "pawtographs," where he tapped his paw on a signature card with his photo, has brought joy to countless individuals. From pediatric cancer centers to police stations, Henry has left a long-lasting impression on the communities he has served. In recognition of his exceptional contributions, Henry and his handler were named Reserve Deputy and Crisis Comfort K-9 of the Year by the Orange County Sheriff's Department in 2021. Additionally, Henry received the honor of being named Professional Services Responder of the Year by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Mutual Aid Division.
Steve played a crucial role during their visits to various sites and facilities. As Henry’s handler, Steve ensured his interactions were positive and supportive, advocating for Henry’s well-being during critical incident debriefs. “I could read his body language like nobody’s business,” Steve said. “I am his advocate.”
But after many years and hundreds of incidents, even Henry himself, with his magical abilities, began to wear down. “He got to the point where he was starting to work less and get down to an hour or two a day,” Steve said. “He was starting to break down and was getting ‘doggie PTSD.’ Different sounds were bothering him. He was telling me ‘I’m done.’ We’d arrive and he would refuse to go into the building, so I knew it was time [for him to retire.]”
In retirement, Henry's schedule will see a shift from crisis response and peer support to more leisurely activities. Project K-9 Hero will provide financially for Henry’s health needs for the remainder of his life. His admission also serves to spotlight the importance of recognizing the invaluable contributions of Peer Support Working Dogs, emphasizing the mental health needs of our first responders.
In Steve's words, "Project K-9 Hero brings me a sense of well-being that I know that my dog is going to be taken care of. That he's going to live his retirement life stress-free and that he's going to live the best life he can after working so hard for so long.”
And Steve says he won’t be getting another dog to take Henry’s place. “No other dog could compare to Henry,” he said.
K-9 Henry's journey is not just a story of service; it's a testament to the evolving roles of canines in supporting the emotional well-being of those who serve and protect our communities. As pioneers in this field, Steve and Henry have paved the way for the recognition and care of Peer Support Working Dogs, acknowledging their pivotal role in maintaining the mental health of our nation’s first responder heroes.