Theresa de Klerk is a Public Information, Education and Relations (PIER) Officer at the K9 Trauma and Education Unit at the Eldorado Park Fire Station in Johannesburg. Theresa has been involved in the Emergency Medical Services sector for 18 years and is currently working hand in hand on an exciting education and trauma guidance programme with her best friend, a two-year-old Labrador
Tell us about the kind of work you and Gezina do
Gezina and I work with over 100 children every day. We are always busy! We visit schools and educate children in fire and water safety which are important life skills. While I present the information, Gezina assists me by demonstrating some of her dog obedience
skills, an all-time favourite being the Stop, Drop and Roll. This forms part of the education component of our work. The other component is the trauma side. Our trauma work has to be by appointment as even though we would like to assist every trauma incident we hear about every day, in reality and with regards to Gezina’s and my mental and physical ability, it is impossible. Gezina specialises in guiding the trauma process by comforting children after a traumatic experience. We also visit many special homes and orphanages where Gezina is exceptional in assisting, calming and encouraging mentally and physically disabled children.
Why is your dog, Gezina, so good at her job?
When it comes to the education component, Gezina is so good because she loves interacting with people. Through the education programme she is able to make new friends by ‘showing off’ her skills and then playing with her new friends. With regards to the trauma component, Gezina facilitates the trauma as she gives unconditional love to everyone she meets. Gezina is able to adapt to whatever mood a person is feeling. If she can tell that you are scared, she will not come to you, you have to go to her and she will, without a doubt, lovingly embrace your presence. After stroking Gezina for about fifteen minutes, feel-good hormones start to be released, which calms a person. She is an excellent listener and will never tell your secrets. People feel that they can open up to Gezina and at the end of the day, a burden shared is a lighter burden.
What constitutes a typical day in your and Gezina’s working life?
We typically begin our day with educational presentations. When we visit schools we work with small groups of children as Gezina gets too excited with large groups – she wants to play with everyone, which ends up exhausting her. We have a rule that we don’t teach more than six classes a day in order to prevent Gezina from becoming overworked. She rests after each class, often relaxing in her bath (that I have to take everywhere!). Following our presentations we usually head back to my office where I do my paperwork, check my emails, make calls and appointments and work on ways of improving the programme, as we actually follow a written programme. Gezina uses this time to rest in her basket. If Gezina gets bored and needs to stretch her legs, she tells me – quite literally! Gezina does not ever bark
, she makes use of what I refer to as silent speech – she opens and closes her mouth as if she is biting the air, but does not make a sound. We then go to our other appointments or go to call-outs. Gezina goes everywhere with me and I refer to her as my daughter. The back seat of my car is strictly Gezina’s property but she does not sit upright in the car, she prefers to lie down until we are close to home, in which case she is will excitedly sit upright.
How did you become involved in the Trauma and Education programme?
My husband originally wanted Gezina for breeding
purposes. However, my position as Station Commander and my brother-in-law’s involvement in the education unit that had only 16 dogs, sparked my interest in becoming involved, and given Gezina’s co-operative nature, we began the training
. We became involved in the trauma aspect quite unexpectedly. Following a drowning where the body could not be found for 48 hours, as a measure of last resort a colleague asked if Gezina and I could come to the scene and assist in any way. I have a Diploma in Psychology, so I counselled the traumatised children who had witnessed the drowning. Gezina also calmed and comforted children who had witnessed the drowning. Amidst the calm that Gezina brought to the scene, the body was found. Seeing the benefits of this interaction between man and dog based on the sharing of unconditional love, I was inspired to establish a programme that would guide the trauma process through the use of dogs, and so it all began. I welcome any suggestions and feedback regarding the programme via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell us about your personal interest in dogs
Seeing as though I am the owner of 16 dogs, it may seem unbelievable that I was not always drawn to dogs. Following my move to a farm with my husband and the loss of my first child, my sausage dogs
, given to me by my husband, brought me so much joy and this is where my love for dogs truly began!
Text: Laura McKeen
Photography: Courtesy of Theresa de Klerk
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