Spotlight: Krystol Berry, Therapy Dog Handler & FRC Coach

The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!

Caroline: After a short break, we have another Spotlight for you all. We’re talking to Krystol Berry, First Responder Therapy Dogs handler. Her dog’s name is Zelda and she is a Chesapeake Bay retriever and chocolate lab mix.

Krystol’s husband, Matt, is a Battalion Chief with Fort Dick Fire Department and has been with them for 23 years. He’s also currently an engineer with Cal Fire. All three of their children either are or have served as firefighters in their volunteer department as well.

She also has a law enforcement connection through her grandfather who was a retired LEO after 30 years. Krystol and her grandfather were very close and she always admired him.

Matt’s father is also a retired deputy sheriff and his brother is currently in the California Fire Highway Patrol. They have several other family connections in the first responder world as well.

We’re talking about first responder relationships, stress management, and communication that is vital to making it work.

I know Krystol has experience with lots of first responder connections and has a bit she can add to this conversation about family connections and stress management. Krystol, thanks for joining us.

Krystol: Thanks for having me.

Caroline: Now, how long have you been with First Responder Coaching?

Krystol: I finished my coaching course in about February.

Caroline: So, we’ve only been graced with your presence for a couple of months at FRC. But you have a lot to bring to the table as far as the first responder world. Tell us what inspired you to be part of this world. It seems like it just happened, right?

Krystol: Yeah, apart from my grandfather, I didn’t really have any experience with first responders at all when I was a kid. When I married my husband, I married into it. But we personally didn’t have much experience until we graduated college and moved to the little town we’re in now.

My husband went to the local fire department to get a burn permit, and when he came home he said, “Okay, well, I joined the fire department.”

Caroline: Surprise!

Krystol: I didn’t have any idea what it was going to be like. I had to learn as we went.

Caroline: That’s like going out for eggs and coming home with chickens. A little more intense than expected.

Krystol: It’s that overachiever thing.

Caroline: Yeah. Those are the people that first responders tend to be. So, you guys have survived 23 years with the fire department. Talk a little bit about what that was like adjusting from normal people to first responder people.

Krystol: So, we had just come from full-time college. We were both in the teaching program and had just done our full-time student teaching year, and then he had gotten a job offer. So, we moved [to where we are now.] He accepted a teaching job, just joined the fire department. I had [teaching] credentials too, but we were going to have a baby, so I was going to be a stay-home parent. It was this whole shift from academic work to now; we’re in this fire life where he could leave at any point. If there’s a call, he’s gone. He’s never off the clock.

That was a hard adjustment especially in a new town. We didn’t really know anybody. It was our first baby so we didn’t know what to expect with the pregnancy. So, there was a lot of frustration on my part because I was on my own for a lot of times. You understand that they’re going to help but at the same time it’s like you’re never off because you’re a volunteer. That was a really difficult adjustment.

Sometimes in the summertime he would go and be gone for weeks at a time. I would be alone with toddlers. We ended up having three children. It was a lot of alone time, a lot of adjusting. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of what I called “single parenting.” It’s not really.

Caroline: We do call it single parenting though.

Krystol: Yeah.

Caroline: They’re not around. Whether you have someone working on night shift or they’re always on-call, it basically is like single parenting in those moments.

Now, when you say he’s a volunteer, I want to clarify for those who don’t know. Whether it’s a call department, volunteer, or paid call… Where does that fit in with you guys?

Krystol: We’re in a very rural community. It’s really small. I think all of the departments are volunteer except those in the nearest larger towns. Our home is not even a quarter of a mile from the fire station. You can hear the siren. What we’re looking at is that at any time of day when there’s a call, the siren goes off. It’s one of those World War II sirens; it’s super loud. In the middle of the night, it’ll wake you up and the whole neighborhood knows there’s something going on and everybody kind of gets off the road.

He just goes. Not a minute’s notice. He has a radio. The siren goes off. He hears what it is and he’s gone. It could be the middle of dinner. It could be the middle of the night. We were grocery shopping one time and there was a structure fire and he left. He had the car and I was at the grocery store with the groceries and the baby.

You’re never off, especially if you’re really dedicated. We know everybody in this community. There are good and bad things about that. The good thing is that you can help people that you know. You can develop really good relationships. They understand that you’re there to help; you’re one of the good guys and trustworthy.

At the same time, there are tragedies and horrible things and it’s somebody that he taught in school – he was a teacher for 28 years – a former student or a parent… Fatalities or horrible accidents, these are people that you know in the community and that part stays with you too. It’s a double-edged sword. 

Caroline: Yes, it definitely is, especially when you’re responding to somebody that you know. That could lots of other implecations as well. So, when he’s responding, is he true volunteer or is he paid-call?

Krystol: I think how it works is the amount of volunteers that show up to a call, they give that number to the state. Then the state gives a certain amount to the department. So, yeah, there’s no pay at all.

Caroline: So, true volunteer.

Krystol: Yes, and responding in personal vehicles. If they have the engineering credentials, they can drive the truck. Most of the time, it’s just everybody jumping in their personal vehicles and showing up.

Caroline: Show up and you’re on.

Krystol: And sometimes you’re there for six or eight hours depending on what it is. 

Caroline: I want to make sure that people who are reading this are able to understand that it’s not just a call department where you get paid – and they’re paid a small amount in call departments – but it’s true volunteer work. Not only are you just leaving your family at the grocery store with no vehicle, but you’re not getting paid for any of that. And you’re risking a lot. You’re interrupting your family life, you’re risking your own health and safety, and there’s no pay for that. 

Krystol: And nobody makes you join. You have to want to join this. It’s special kind of person to do that kind of thing. I am in awe of the guys and the women who do that. You’re sacraficing so much for just knowing that you’re helping. That’s your reward, which is good, but it’s not pay.

Caroline: Right. So, he’s been riding that wave for 23 years. You’ve been riding that wave. You guys have three children?

Krystol: We’ve got three children. We’ve got a son who is 22, and we’ve got a daughter who is 20, and another daughter who is 17. All three of them went through the explorer program with Fort Dick Fire Department. While my son lived here, he was on the fire department, but he’s since graduated and he’s moved to Arizona. My older daughter is still a firefighter with Fort Dick and my younger daughter is still an explorer. They have the training and go to calls.

It’s really cool for me to know they’re following in their dad’s footsteps with community service. They care about the community and it’s because they know everyone. We’re part of it. It’s not even the idea of giving back but that it’s our community; we do this for each other. They have that care for the community. I myself am a person of service as well but I can’t handle the type of things that firefighters see. I know that I would not be able to do that.

So, I decided to go a little sideways into the mental health part of it. I see what these people carry on a daily basis. So, I started with a therapy dog which is wonderful and then I developed an interest in coaching as well. I think that’s a step deeper into helping.

Caroline: It definitely is. Like you say, not everyone has the inner build to be a firefighter or a police officer or an EMT. Not everybody wants to put digits on ice or pull out something that was once a person from a burning building or stand in front of a gun. Behind it is one thing. In front is another story. Not everybody has these abilities. Correctional officers go right into not necessarily always a dangerous situation but you’re surrounded by many dangeroud people.

Krystol: Yeah, it can be volitile. 

Caroline: Every aspect of first responder life has it’s own type of personality that you need for all that. I wouldn’t give up the dark sense of humor for anything.

Krystol: Right?

Caroline: But the risks that they take and the lifestyles that they choose, that’s super hard. And then being a spouse or a family member is another thing entirely. You asked yourself, “I couldn’t do that but what can I do?” That’s how you got into therapy dog handling. Talk about that now.

Krystol: Okay, so we have a dog, Zelda. She’s seven years old. When we first got her, my husband wanted to train her to be a fire dog in general. So, he worked with her and got her trained in structural collapse. She started off as his dog and a working dog, but the more he goes away, I’m here at home with the dog. So if she’s not working with him, what can I do?

I actually listen to a bunch of first-responder-centered podcasts. I had listened to a podcast – trying to remember which one – they had [talked about] first responder therapy dogs. They had a representative from that group. I thought, I have a dog and she’s already highly trained so it wouldn’t take much to get her certified.

I contacted the organization and the head of the organization is in California and we got to chatting. Long story short, we certified the dog [in October] so it hasn’t even been a full year. We’ve already gone to so many fire stations. We show up, we hang out, and they play with the dog. She absolutely loves the attention. If they have a ball, she’s all over it.

They just get a little bit of normalcy. They miss their pets. They’re not at home. Some of these guys are coming from completely out of the area and flying into their jobs. They get a chance to let that guard down a little bit and be who they are with a dog.

It’s proven that petting a dog, or being with a dog or an animal, boosts your levels of serotonin and relieves stress. You can see it just melt away. Some of these guys are like twelve-year-olds again just playing with the dog. It’s wonderful to see. I absolutely love it.

Caroline: Yeah, they’re all just big kids. And who doesn’t love playing with a dog? And there are studies that have proven the positive effects of interacting with pets, reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and so on.

Krystol: You can actually watch it happen right in front of you. The grizzled old captain [changes.] And I don’t have to say a word. They’re not interacting with me; they’re paying attention to the dog. 

Caroline: That’s right, they don’t care about you.

Krystol: No. They don’t. I am the handler. They might know my name, but it doesn’t matter.

Caroline: I love it. So, First Responder Therapy Dogs is the group that you’re with. How long have you been with them?

Krystol: Just since October, well, we started the process in October. We had to prove that she was actually trained. There is a rigorous process to go through. Heidi Carmen is the woman in charge. She founded it and she’s done a wonderful job. It’s a nationwide organization. If you get the chance to check out their website, they’re amazing.

Caroline: That’s great. Now, you said you mostly do fire departments. Do you visit law enforcement as well?

Krystol: Yes, I have these little trading cards that I’ve made and I hand them out like candy. I went to the local street fair and was just handing them out to kids and adults. I tell people to call me. If you want a visit, I’ll come. We can also do debriefs. If there’s been a difficult call or something rough, I’ll have the dog in there as a buffer.

So far, I’ve only interacted with fire departments, but I’m open to visiting anyone who wants to see the dog. Any type of first responder who wants to see the dog, I’m glad to do it. It’s therapy for me as well.

Caroline: Definitely. Now, you also have a connection to LEO life because your grandfather was a retired police officer of thirty years. Talk about that relationship.

Krystol: It’s kind of a weird story. We all come from these crazy backgrounds, including myself. A lot of first responders want to be helpers because they come from some interesting backgrounds. So, I’ve got a background similar to that.

Circumstances kept me from knowing my grandfather until I was about 14 years old. So, I met him at 14 and it was actually at his retirement party. We went up and got a chance to meet him. He was the one family member I felt like I really connected with. He’s just an amazing guy with that dark sense of humor obviously from working on the job.

He was city police in Grands Pass, Oregon. He had gone from the late 1950s through the 1990s when he retired. Getting to know him was great because I asked a lot of questions about his career and what did he do. He had these stories… He was security for Bobby Kennedy when he came through and it was shortly before he was assassinated. That had an impact on him. He had a funny story of arresting these “hippies” who were yelling out of the back of the car, “We’re going to be famous someday!” They turned later out to be members of The Grateful Dead.

He showed a level of poise. There was some rough stuff that he went through in his career, but he carried it well. He had this humor that sort of turned everything. He was probably the best example of integrity that I had seen in my childhood. That made a huge impact on me.

As we got to develop a really close relationship, I just really got to love his character and the type of person he was. I think it sort of opened me up to a better understanding of other people in first responder careers. They’re helpers. They’re kind of hard on the outside, but once you break through that exterior, you’ve got a person who’ll do anything for you because that’s who they are. That’s just such a gift. I don’t think a lot of people realize that.

Caroline: Absolutely. First responder personalities can come in all flavors, but when you break through that rough exterior, which is just a protective coating, you get to the most generous, kind, and caring person. A lot of those guys would laugh at that sentence.

Krystol: But they know deep down…

Caroline: We’ve got them figured out. There’s a reason they’re doing the crazy things they’re doing. They feel that obligation. They feel that sense of duty. 

Krystol: And they have the capability. They know they’re capable and they know not everybody is, so there’s that sense of duty.

Caroline: Yes. Let’s talk about the tough part of that, the stress management. You’ve had all these different first responder relationships. You’ve had all these different experiences. And you’ve come in with a therapy dog and seen the look on their faces change. You’ve seen their tension and muscles relax a little bit. That transformation happens right in front of you.

Talk a little bit about stress management in terms of the spouse end, the helping-the-helpers end.

Krystol: The most important thing for first responder spouses or partners to realize is this issue. When they come off a shift and they get home, it’s not like me coming home from doing the shopping. They’re in a completely different world with the fact that their head has to be a certain way to do their job. When they come home, it’s not going to be just turned off. It took me a little while to really realize that was the situation. As soon as my husband came in the door, I’d be like, “Here’s the baby…” But he wasn’t there.

So, it’s really important to give them time to decompress or do something to get out of work mode and try to come back to off-duty mode, family, or whatever that is. For some people, they need a half hour to take a walk in the yard and get some stuff done. For some people, it’s the drive home if they’re farther away. And for some people, it’s going out and meeting up with friends for a half hour. Something. You’ve got to allow that time for the shift, because if you don’t…

Talking to my husband in work mode is very different than talking to him when he’s just my husband. That can lead to all sorts of conflict. You know? There are times when I’ve had to tell myself, “He’s still in work mode. Do not get your feelings hurt that he’s speaking to you like you’re part of his crew. That’s just the way he’s speaking.” So, I’ll gently say something funny. Humor helps so much. Just bring it in, “Okay, Officer Berry.” Just a little reminder.

The other day, we were on a walk and he was giving me instructions for things that should be done when he’s gone. I just stopped him and said, “You know, you’ve got a wife who doesn’t like to be told what to do but you’re doing an awful lot of telling her what to do right now.” And we both laughed. He said, “You’re right, you don’t like to be told what to do. All right, these are suggestions.” It sort of diffused the situation.

We’ve been married 25 years and it’s taken a lot to get to that point. Before, it would be like, “Why are you talking to me like that?” And it becomes a conflict. Quite honestly, I see a lot of that with people who are early in their marriages or early in their careers.

You’ve got to have that communication and understand what your partner is going through in a first responder career. If you don’t, it’s so easy to crash and burn and then not really fully grasp what happened. If they become a different person, it’s because they’re still in work mode. So, work with that. Definitely give them time to decompress.

Caroline: Definitely. That could be said for almost any profession but especially for any first responder job. It’s not just that they’re stressed from work – they didn’t just have a manager yell at them or meetings all day. No, they could’ve had some trauma that happened and they’re dealing with that or they’re dealing with stress that triggered some past trauma. There are all kinds of factors and variables involved. Allowing them to decompress or get out of that work mode, as you say, is really important.

I like that you specifically said you have to remind yourself that he’s still in work mode. I’ve had that experience so many times when my husband’s come home from work and I just want to be like, “Here’s the kids. Did you go to the grocery store? We need this.” I needed to dial it back. “Okay, how are you doing?” Check in first. Sometimes I don’t get a response and I back off. Then I come back in ten minutes.

Krystol: That’s important too. Follow their cues. If they’ve had a particularly rough day, don’t push it to force them back to normal. You don’t know what they’ve seen or done and sometimes that stuff needs a lot of processing time. 

Caroline: Yes, my husband and I have come a long way with that communication as well, as I’m sure you have and those who have been married for long enough. 

Krystol: In general, it’s hard, but then you go through first responder careers and it’s a different twist.

Caroline: Most definitely. Well, I think there’s just so much we’ve talked about as far as relationships, stress management, and communication and the different avenues that it can take. We could keep going but we need to wrap it up for now.

Krystol, thank you so much for joining us.

Krystol: Thank you.

Caroline: Folks, you can connect with Krystol Berry through our coaches page. If you’re local to northern California by the Oregon border near the coast, you can get a visit from Zelda. Otherwise, she’s available for coaching and we’re excited about that. If you want to work on your stress management, relationships, or communication, reach out to us at FRC. We’re here for you.