As a 911 Southsound (Tacoma) communications officer for 26 years, Shelley Timbers has heard it all – sometimes desperate, all too often outlandish.
In a sense, she is a first responder and faceless voice of reason and calm for the public’s calls during her eight- and 10-hour, plus overtime, shifts. But it’s a job that extracts a toll physically and psychologically.
“You learn not to take any of it personally,” she emphasizes, “but you must have an outlet or someone to talk to who understands you and what you undergo day after day.”
For Timbers, her prime de-stressors have been – in addition to workmates – a pair Bernese Mountain Dogs, Anja, 5½, and Loki, 8, and their predecessors.
“When I come home, they help calm me by being goofy, big, ol’ lap dogs and couch potatoes. The minute I get home, I let them out of their outside kennel before bringing them inside. Anja and I play laser light tag in the backyard, where she runs around at full speed, even allowing the red light to inch up the side of the house. While she’s running, Loki and I play tug-a-war or keep away with whatever is his ball of the day.
“We then go inside for dinner, where they’ll grab a toy and the tug-a-war continues for a bit. Before they finally get to eat, or shortly after.”
And if that isn’t enough, Timbers will engage them with some obedience and rally exercises, to maintain their sharpness for future competitions and to “keep their brains young.”
Following dinner and a final potty break, it’s a mad dash for the foot of the bed and the prime spot for the night. (She works swing shifts – 3 p.m.-11 p.m. or 3 p.m.-1 a.m.)
In mornings before work or on days off, her lap is often fully occupied by one dog and occasionally two, along with a couple cats on the back or arm of the couch. The cats, she adds, interact seamlessly with the Berners.
“It’s nice to be able to focus on something so upbeat away from work,” she says, “whether it’s just fun activities or preparation for weekend competition or classes at Family Dog Training Center (in Kent).”
Timbers can’t imagine her life without a dog. “Especially while I’m still working,” she emphasizes, “they give me a passion. I’m even thinking of adding a third one to the mix next year while I still have enough energy.
“I don’t have time to dwell on stress and the bad things that happen at work. If I’ve had a bad night and am feeling down, I can’t have too long a pity party, since I have the responsibility of making sure my four-legged kids are taken care of.”
In 2½-plus decades, she says only one call has affected her long term – and you can guess what helped bring her out of the deep funk.
“About 15 years ago I took a call from a mother whose young son, 9 or 11, had taken his own life. I’ve had other suicide calls but this one hit hard. Most probably because of the age of the person involved. The mother was attempting CPR, with help from the medical team, and she wanted me to call her pastor.
“You could hear the disbelief and agony in her voice as she tried to help her son. Once officers got there and I was able to disconnect and make the call she requested, my body started to react in a way it never had before or hasn’t since. I wasn’t able to unplug or leave work early. My body went into a shut-down mode.
“I got sort of a metallic taste in my mouth, which I’m told is common in major stress situations, and an out-of-body feeling, like I was moving on a cloud.”
Upon finishing her shift, she arrived home, grabbed her dogs, hugged them and cried. “They thought mom had gone loony, since they weren’t lap dogs like I have now, and had never seen this side of me. It took a while for me to get the sounds/voices down enough to sleep.”
Her grief didn’t end that night. She continued crying for several days, hugging her four-legged kids throughout the process.
Loki and Anja are her prime stabilizing forces outside of the workplace today. “This breed is a big help, since its nature is so calm and understanding. When I just want to sit and not interact due to aches and pains of one sort or another, they’re more than willing to sit on the couch with me or at my feet where I can still pet and groom them some. In that sense, they’re hands-on therapy. I can usually feel the strain of the past shift or the apprehension of an upcoming one dissipate some with that small amount interaction.”
Anja and Timbers are enrolled in Tuesday and Thursday morning agility classes weekly. When her schedule allows, she tries to get Loki into an evening obedience class, as well. Following most of those Tuesday and Thursday sessions, Timbers takes the dog home and quickly heads for work. “It sometimes give me good momentum to get through my shift,” she smiles.
Physically, dog training has proven a terrific de-stressor, she adds, particularly the agility sessions. “It helps get my body going so I won’t be stiff from sitting in long stretches at work. And the weeks when I have a dog show or fun match coming up, on my breaks I tend to focus on what I still need to work on.”
Southsound 911 is a dog-friendly workplace with boundaries. The animals cannot be brought inside but they are allowed in the secured parking area, where they can romp about with their owners while on breaks.
“When I first brought Loki home at 8 weeks of age,” Timbers says, “he came to work with me daily, since I couldn’t justify leaving him alone in my fenced backyard for long periods of time. As a result, he received some great socialization and was a big hit with everyone.” Anja missed out on that because Timbers had put together an outside kennel where the dog could mingle with Loki.
Southsound 911 receives a wide range of calls ranging from loud music/party complaints and cows/horses wandering in road ways or lost dogs to the more serious nature of escalated fights/arguments, home break-ins, suicides or finding an elderly parent dead of natural causes.
“You just never know what that next ring might be,” concludes Timbers, “but when I arrive home each night I know two happy dogs will be there to greet me. That’s enough to make me smile, even on the most trying days.”