From sniffing out bombs to supporting physical therapy, from providing emotional comfort to striking a pose for photographers, animals are playing key roles in some central Ohio organizations.

From sniffing out bombs to supporting physical therapy, from providing emotional comfort to striking a pose for photographers, animals are playing key roles in some central Ohio organizations.

By all measures, Jackson is a Very Good Dog. He sits on command, would never pounce on a stranger and sticks close to his human, Kari Lindberg. Oh, and there's one more thing: Jackson, 6, is a member of the Columbus Division of Fire's K9 Explosives Unit, and as such, is a highly trained canine capable of sniffing out the scent of potentially deadly bombs, a capability regularly put to the test in his work around central Ohio.

K9 Jackson is far from the only animal in town with a 9-to-5. In addition to fellow dogs, there are many creatures great and small hard at work as major players in Columbus-area companies, fulfilling duties that their human companions and colleagues cannot.

A Firecracker

Dogs, according to research at Florida State University's Sensory Research Institute, have a sense of smell 10,000 to 100,000 times that of a human. No wonder, then, they've been playing a supporting role in sniffing out hazards in fire departments for years now. The Columbus Division of Fire got its first arson dog in 1994 and in 2006 began offering accelerant and explosives detection training to its own dogs and others in Ohio.

"We weren't doing it for the money, necessarily, because we're not running two classes a year, training six or seven dogs at a time like the private companies," says K9 Trainer Ken Beavers. Columbus' focus is on maintaining its own K9 ranks. Right now, the fire department has one accelerant dog and two bomb dogs; they would like to add one more explosives dog to the team and will sometimes provide training to other agencies.

Beavers and Firefighter Dennis Hammond start by picking a dog from a rescue or a breeder. They look for one aged 18-26 months, with a longer snout (and thus, more scent receptors) and with "a certain set of drives that are kind of off the charts," says Beavers.

Food motivation is major. The dogs will be hand-fed by trainers every day of their working lives, and food will be used as a reward for keeping up their exercise and training. The dogs also have to be patient and have enough energy to keep alert for hours. At the start of training, they might be exposed to a certain scent more than 100 times a day. They also have to be stable, especially in unfamiliar situations.

After it is selected, a dog will work with Beavers and Hammond for two-three months before pairing up with a handler for classes, which run 10 weeks for explosive dogs and eight weeks for accelerants dogs. "Really at that point, we're training the handler, because the dog's pretty much trained," says Beavers. To go out and purchase a dog with this kind of training would cost about $12,000 to $16,000, says Hammond.

Columbus Fire uses accelerant dogs whenever there's a fatal or suspicious fire. The bomb-sniffing dogs are used to sweep an area before a big event, such as a marathon or a visit from a dignitary. "The bomb dogs are very busy right now, especially with an election year. They're actually up 38 percent this year in their runs," says Hammond.

As many as 40 firefighters apply for every handler position. Lindberg herself applied four times before being selected five years ago to work with Jackson. "The thought of being paid to walk your dog sounded like a dream job," she says. "I feel like I've won the lottery." Not that the work is easy. "Your whole life really revolves around your job," she says.

Around age 8, the fire department begins monitoring the dogs to see if they're ready to retire. "The only thing that's going to stop them is the thing that stops us when we get old as humans-arthritis, that sort of thing," Beavers says.

Horses for Healing

Nonprofit Stockhands Horses for Healing in Delaware serves adults and children with developmental, physical and emotional disabilities. Executive Director Lisa Benton, R.N., co-founded Stockhands with partner Tim Funk, about two years ago, after Funk received Farrier Certification from Hocking College.

Stockhands works with a number of children with autism. "A lot of times they have poor coordination, low muscle tone, poor core strength from a physical aspect, and then, obviously, there's the developmental issues, the social communication. Some of them are verbal, some are non-verbal, and a lot of them stim, they'll do repetitive behaviors," Benton says.

The children play games, such as throwing faux snowballs, while on the horses, which helps them build their abdominal muscles and improve balance. "The horse itself, its movements can kind of mimic some of the stimming and rocking behaviors, so a lot of times it helps them with anxiety and (to) be more calm," Benton says.

Powell resident Valerie Cook has brought son Charlie, 6, to Stockhands for nearly two years. Charlie has cerebral palsy and had surgery around then to help him independently walk. "Part of it is you really need to increase your core strength and we are always looking for him to do these activities in a much more fun way than what he was finding in PT," Cook says.

"We fell in love with the people and the horses and the barn and the philosophy and how they were willing to work with us," she says. Charlie started walking a year ago; Cook gives Stockhands credit for helping him build up his strength to do so. "We know horses provide a huge therapeutic benefit in a lot of ways. It can be social-emotional, and for us, it's also that physical piece."

About 40 percent of Stockhands' budget last year came from program fees; the remainder from donors and fundraising. At present, it has only one paid employee. "Horses aren't cheap," Benton acknowledges. Hay for its 22 horses costs $10,000-$12,000 annually; rent runs about $40,000. "Our ideal budget would be to probably bring in closer to $180,000-$200,000 a year, and we're bringing in closer to $100,000 right now," she says. Benton hopes that business is big enough in the next year to be able to meet that goal. "That will be huge for us."

Models Gone Wild

Rachel Lauren had a longtime love of wild animals and had started photographing animals in captivity when she learned about ambassador wolf programs, which help educate the public about the creatures. "At that time, there weren't really that many people doing it," she says. In 2012, she and boyfriend Matt Emmelhainz adopted Lucian, a black wolf. In the years since, their business, Ironwood Wolves, a small USDA-licensed facility, added three more wolves and two foxes.

From events such as lectures at schools and libraries and in front of scout troops to small-group gatherings for photographers to capture the animals in a natural setting, Lauren says the goal is to demystify wolves. "The ironic thing we mention in all of our presentations is that, actually, we have to go through at least six to eight months of training and socialization to teach them that people are not scary," she says. Now, "I'm not making them do anything. If they don't want to go (on a particular assignment), they don't go."

Ironwood's educational programs are $150. Meet-and-greets with the wolves are $75 for two people and small-group photography workshops run $80 per person. Lucian's reel includes an appearance in a Mountain Dew commercial, and he and the other animals have also appeared in independent films, says Lauren. There's one thing Ironwood won't OK: depicting the canines negatively. "We've had people contact us for movies and stuff and they want our animals to snarl or do something like that, and I won't do it," she says.

Photographer Laura Biddle has worked with Ironwood regularly for 3.5 years. Biddle says the wolves are "a big draw for my clientele." Still, she acknowledges, "it's probably one of the more difficult shoots I offer. Obviously, any time you work with animals … we kind of depend on their attitude, how they're working that day and also how they react to the person who's with them. … So it can be a little frustrating at times to work with them, but it's very rewarding."

Buddy System

Not unexpectedly, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is another place where animals hold key jobs besides the obvious. Among their roles: ambassadors for the zoo, at times alongside Director Emeritus Jack Hanna.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums, a nonprofit that represents more than 230 institutions in the US and abroad, reports the advantages of well-run ambassador presentations are many, including "audience engagement, knowledge acquisition and enhanced environmental attitudes." The Columbus Zoo's animal programs include activities on- and off-site. Off-site, the zoo does as many as eight programs a day, bringing animals such as penguins, kangaroos and cheetahs to schools, businesses, Rotary Club gatherings and the like. "We reach millions of people every year if you include all of the TV we do," says Suzi Rapp, vice president of animal programs.

Among the most-requested ambassador animals are the zoo's 14 cheetahs, and one of its newest-and cutest-ambassadors is cheetah cub Emmett. Born June 16 at the Wilds in Cumberland, Emmett was hand-reared while being treated for pneumonia.

Supporting Emmett in his work is Cullen, a Labrador puppy born July 11 that spends each day with the cub and nights at home with a human caretaker. Cheetahs tend to be shy and nervous; Cullen's role is to help Emmett gain confidence in unfamiliar situations.

Emmett made his pick from three puppies of local breeder Borador Labradors. "There was another one that was all over him, and at first I kind of wanted to pick him, but then I thought he might have been a little overexcited. … You want a puppy that's also going to back off, and that one wasn't backing off," Rapp says.

The purebred Labs are the zoo's choice for cheetah companions because "we want to know the history of the dog," says Rapp. "That's the problem of going to the pound, as much as we would love to have that story, you don't know what you're getting and you might end up with a dog with a not-very-good disposition.

Cheetahs and Labs also pair well because they are of a similar size and share an average life expectancy, Rapp says.

Although these animal ambassadors can generate a small amount of revenue for the zoo (off-ground programming typically costs $500), their primary function is one of outreach and education, says Rapp. "We truly are a conservation organization, and that is our No. 1 message."

Schoedinger's Dog

Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Services began Tara's Touch, a grief therapy dog program, about six months after Director of Pet Services Roberta Knauf arrived in 2012. Tara, a black Lab, died in May 2015, but her legacy of helping calm the grief-stricken has carried on with Willow, a Labradoodle mix Knauf rescued in 2014.

Science has proven that petting animals can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and even create a hormonal response that raises serotonin levels. Through Tara's Touch, Willow is available to individuals who have lost their own pet, when families are making funeral arrangements, during calling hours, at activities for children and during a funeral service. There is no cost for Willow to be present.

"We look for a dog that is very calm, that can handle all kinds of situations. That can handle the stress of being petted and is able to function even though there is a lot of emotion," Knauf says. Dogs, she says, "can feel or sense or smell the chemical changes in your body. So as you're grieving or worrying or having any type of emotions like that, they can sense that. … Tara, as well as Willow now, could go into a room and go right to the person who needs the most help."

Willow's services are called upon once a day, three or four days a week. Being mindful of those work hours is important, because entering stressful situations "affects them, too," Knauf says. "They can take all of that on, but they know they have a job to do."

The Purrfect Café

A phenomenon in countries such as Taiwan and Japan since the late '90s, cat cafés did not arrive stateside until late 2014. The cafés' appeal to feline fans is straightforward: pay a cover fee, pick up a snack, and spend quality time hanging out with a cat (or being ignored by one-these are cats).

Chrissy Kuras was set to open Eat, Purr, Love in Clintonville in mid-September. Cat cafés in the US are distinguished by their focus on adoptions, and hers will be no different, thanks to a relationship with the Capital Area Humane Society. It is choosing the café's feline tenants, which will be available for adoption.

Located in a former vintage clothing store, the café is welcoming to cats and humans alike. For the resident cats, it offers toys, games and places to climb and explore, while humans can make themselves comfortable in the Wi-Fi-equipped space with cushions on the ground, sofas and small tables. Reservations are $10/hour, and only 15 people will be allowed in at any time. There will be 10-12 cats on-site. "For the cats, it's like living in a home atmosphere," Kuras says. The café will provide the ideal setting for cats to show their stuff, she predicts. "I think we're going to make a lot of love connections."

She should know-Kuras has worked in veterinary clinics for 30 years and has fostered animals for 20. She's received adoption counselor training from CAHS so that she and her staff can facilitate adoptions directly from the café.

Per government food service regulations, the area where the cats are is separated from that where food and drink are served. Pre-packaged goods from nearby Pattycake Bakery will be complemented with coffee brewed on-site, as well as bottled drinks. A surveillance system will help keep the cats safe after hours-and provide viewing opportunities for some of Eat, Purr, Love's Kickstarter supporters. In all, 217 backers pledged $9,359 to help bring Kuras' vision to life.

Eat, Purr, Love will also offer Yogatos (yoga instruction surrounded by cats), a Purrs and Palettes painting class and Meow Mixers for singles. Additionally, it will host off-hours programs for groups of people who might not otherwise get to experience the therapeutic benefits of cats, such as those in assisted living, and will open its doors to cat rescue groups to use for fundraisers, workshops and volunteer recruitment/orientation, says Kuras. "Even though it's not a nonprofit business, I still want to be as benevolent and altruistic as possible."

Jennifer Wray is associate editor.