Elma Update: Specialist Service Dog Supporting Air Force Squadron “Way Up North”
Specialist Therapy Dog Elma and Licensed Clinical Social Worker Sara, in partnership with Paws for Purple Hearts Team Alaska and the True North Program, have joined forces to create meaningful connections with Warriors in high-stress areas. Their mission: open the door to mental health opportunities without any associated stigma. More than any other project at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) in Anchorage, Alaska, the True North Program (offered through the Department of the Air Force) – augmented by our furry friend Elma – makes mental health resources accessible to all who need them. With her ability to be non-judgmental and unconditionally accepting, Elma adds that special ingredient that makes it possible for local service members to receive care and support anytime and for the program to really shine.
The 773rd Squadron
After working with Elma and Sara for the past year, we caught up with a few members of the 773rd Civil Engineer Squadron and other local service members who have benefitted from their dedicated efforts at JBER. All were enthusiastic, even those who were initially skeptical. “All we all need is a dog around here,” grumbled Mr. Joseph Lawrence, a civilian and Army retiree with over 22 years of service, upon hearing about Elma’s imminent arrival as a member of the True North team. His initial skepticism melted away quickly though once Elma arrived on the scene with her friendly demeanor and magnetic personality. He swiftly came to see the potential of the True North – Paws for Purple Hearts collaborative effort. Now he admits he recognizes that the program, especially with Elma on board, increases the resilience of Airmen and their families, supports their overall well-being, and promotes the physical, mental, spiritual and social aspects of their everyday lives.
Working with Elma
Enter Specialist Therapy Dog Elma and her handler, Sara Baxter, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) assigned to the 773rd Civil Engineer Squadron at JBER. Together, they are essential members of a team that includes embedded mental health professionals, physiologists, physical therapists, and chaplains to assist high-risk groups of personnel. This underscores the great level of commitment by the Air Force to help Airmen and their family members thrive in both their personal and professional lives.
Elma’s main job is to create a non-judgmental space for the men and women of the 773rd. Working alongside her human mental health care provider, Elma provides a friendly face to engage with personnel while simultaneously enabling them to seek support and care for their mental health. With a loving shake of a paw, she lifts moods and boosts morale. With a gentle snuggle, she builds a welcoming atmosphere and promotes healing. A PPH Specialist Therapy dog provides the real comfort of a home-like atmosphere for those who unfortunately cannot be at home due to remote assignments and deployments.
Upon meeting Elma, Mr. Lawrence shared his thoughts with us:
“After a few weeks or so I had come to see the dog in a different way. I asked Ms. Baxter the dog’s name. She replied ‘Elma,’ and from that day to now I would look forward to walking past the doorway or just stopping in to see Elma or just say ‘Hi’ to Ms. Baxter.”
“As for Ms. Baxter, she has made a significant change to my day-to-day maneuvering in the workplace. I can go and talk to her about the people and situations that create tension in this workplace. I am leaving work each day in a better frame of mind.”
According to both her handler and her many coworkers, Elma is integrating into the squadron with “the ease and grace with which she catches her frisbee.”
“When we go into shops, the airmen are so excited to see her,” Sara notes. Elma regularly makes her rounds for back scratches and belly rubs; all part of the job.
She’s become a true part of the squadron and staple in the facility. “When service members pet her they report the interaction gives them a break from the stress of the day and what’s going on in their lives.” Some of Elma’s coworkers shared their affection for her:
“She relaxes people, she’s my friend and says hi to me every day.” – Brenda Passmore, Retired Army
“She’s happy and that makes me happy. She’s mellow and calm and relaxes me.” Tom Cruze
“She takes your mind off things – a refresher.” Sgt Loaiza
“Boosts my morale, every time I see her it makes me super happy.” – SSgt. Lord
“She is so calming to have laying around while we’re talking.” – Sgt Mugo
“You can see the excitement in the room when she walks in. Sara and Elma stop by every morning which honestly is one of the better parts of the start of my day. I believe they both have an outstanding impact on the squadron.” – TSgt Register
Elma has been introduced to every shop in the squadron, been in work vehicles, was in the lead truck in the “Snow Barn’s Parade,” had a birthday party at work, and has her own bed and snacks in the 1st Sergeant’s office. She is well loved and valued at the 773rd CES.
“Sara, has also been a welcome addition to the unit. Because she has been positioned in the workplace, it has been very productive because she is readily available and approachable. Her open door policy, positive spirit, ability to listen (non-judgmentally) and her thoughtful comments make us all very appreciative of her. Her impact has been enhanced by Elma because they complement each other. When we go to her office, we now have two welcoming souls there; we are honored to have them both with us.” – Almax McCoy, retired Senior Master Sergeant of the Air Force and civilian in the 773rd squadron.
It’s clear to see this duo is working hard to make a difference in their squadron and around the base, and they look forward to helping improve lives for many years to come.