He was a gentle giant known for healing broken hearts.
In the aftermath of tragedies in Newtown, Boston, Las Vegas and other communities, a 125-pound Akita had a quiet but important job to do. Along with his handler Brad Cole, of Milford, Spartacus the therapy dog would comfort survivors and the first responders working these traumatic incidents.
Spartacus died Monday after being stricken with advanced bone cancer. It was a sudden end, Cole said, to a decade spent helping people heal from trauma. The duo got their start volunteering at Yale New Haven Hospital as a registered therapy dog team.
On December 14, 2012, everything changed.
The YNHH canine teams were called to Newtown after the Sandy Hook tragedy. It was there that Cole realized a more pressing need: Support for the police, fire and EMS personnel responding to traumatic events.
“I wanted to do something for the community,” Cole said. “Like many of us in Connecticut and around the world, we wanted to try and help with people’s pain. I knew what Spartacus could do, and we were invited to work with the crisis teams.”
Cole founded the non-profit K9 First Responders, helping communities affected by violence, tragedy or traumatic events through dog-assisted crisis counseling, with a focus on mental health support for first responders.
“They see a lot. And they may come off a call and they may be impacted. Who’s there for them?” Cole said.
Since 2012, Spartacus, Cole and a team of more than a dozen registered therapy dogs and certified handlers have responded to dozens of incidents. Most recently, they were requested to comfort families affected by the B17 vintage plane crash at Bradley Airport and provide support behind the scenes after the death of a Worcester, Massachusetts fire lieutenant.
Today, the organization is partnered with more than 100 local agencies for crisis response and day-to-day stress management. The dogs, Cole said, help to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment.
“To understand that it’s OK to ask for help,” he said. “To help people understand, especially in public safety, that they’re human, and if they break a leg we don’t tell them to go walk it off. We tell them to get it taken care of. And mental health is the same way.”
News of Spartacus’ death was shared on his Facebook fan page and spread quickly on social media. Thousands of messages and tributes began to pour in, many from public safety agencies across the country.
Students from Milford’s Jonathan Law High School shared special tributes recalling the support Spartacus provided in the weeks and months after the murder of Maren Sanchez, including escorting her class onto the field at their graduation.
Cole said the outpouring of condolences has brought him comfort. But for now, the healer on the other end of the leash needs a little more time. When he’s ready, he said, he’ll get another Akita puppy. And the mission will continue as there will surely be more calls to come and more hearts to heal.
“There will always be evil in this world and the love, support and caring of people will overcome it,” Cole said.