Comfort Dogs Give Hope to People in Crisis

comfort dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Unlike therapy dogs, which typically work in non-emergency, albeit stressful, environments, such as prisons, court proceedings or school libraries during exams, comfort dogs are there to help in the midst of active crisis
  • During natural or man-made disasters, comfort dogs, also known as crisis dogs, provide a sense of hope and compassion as well as a distraction from a difficult situation
  • For first responders, interacting with a calm comfort dog may help decrease heart rate and lower anxiety, while victims may have an easier time opening up and talking about their emotions when a comfort canine is present

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

In times of crisis, animals can provide solace and comfort without saying a word. They listen intently without judgment, provide a safe place to share your feelings and can bring a sense of calm and normalcy to an otherwise chaotic or tragic situation. Unlike therapy dogs, which typically work in non-emergency, albeit stressful, environments, such as prisons, court proceedings or school libraries during exams, comfort dogs are there to help in the midst of active crisis.

During natural or man-made disasters, people often gather in shelters or other public areas, and it's there that comfort dogs, also known as crisis dogs, provide a sense of hope and compassion as well as a distraction from a difficult situation. Whether it's their soft fur, their understanding eyes or their warm body to cry on, just the presence of a dog in a time of need can make an unbearable situation tolerable.

Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry

At Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, based in Northbrook, Illinois, more than 130 dogs — all golden retrievers — in over 20 states are available to help in times of disaster and crisis. From tending to victims of school shootings, bombings, flooding and hurricanes to attending military and police funerals, the organization aims to have dogs on site within 24 hours of being called.

President and CEO Tim Hetzner told Veterinary News DVM 360 that people may freeze up in times of crisis, but the dogs provide a sense of hope. "Many times they'll talk to the dogs first," he said. "They're good listeners, they don't take notes, they're confidential."1 The organization, which is funded by donations and does not charge for its services, even supplies each dog with an email address and social media account so they (and their handlers) can keep in touch with the people they've visited.

LCC's crisis dogs begin training at eight weeks and continue until they're 16 to 18 months old, learning to work with different handlers and tolerate new people, sights and loud sounds. Thousands of lives have already been touched by the dogs, Hetzner said:2

"Mercy, compassion and care are so important in times like this — it shows the world isn't evil. There's good still in it, and people need to see that there's hope … every time they see one of our dogs, you see the miracle of their eyes lighting up. The dogs sit or lay, and the people will lay on them like a comfort rug with a heartbeat. And then they'll talk to the dog. And then they'll start smiling, and there's hope again."

Even FEMA and the FBI Call on Comfort Dogs

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) works with nonprofit organizations to bring comfort dogs into areas of crisis to help not only victims but also first responders. HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (AACR) is one such organization. Run by volunteers, HOPE AACR specially trains its dogs and their handlers to provide "psychological first aid." Holding, stroking or even simply seeing an animal may lower blood pressure while lessening feelings of hostility and increasing self-esteem.

For first responders, interacting with a calm comfort dog may help to decrease heart rate and lower anxiety. With dogs of all breeds, from mixed breeds to Newfoundlands, HOPE AACR travels across the U.S. tending to victims of mudslides, unexpected deaths, child abuse, shootings and more.

"Together, teams provide companionship, comfort, socialization, mental stimulation and appropriate physical touch to people in need," the organization states. At HOPE AACR, dog/handler teams must first be experienced in animal-assisted therapy that takes place in non-emergency settings, such as hospitals, schools and senior facilities.

"When teams visit hospitals, schools, long-term care and other such facilities they usually are meeting and greeting people. There are no goals set, other than to give people an opportunity to interact with the animal. As such, this is called Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA)," they explain. Teams that work in crisis response must take training to another level to handle the intense emotional demands of crisis work. According to HOPE AACR:3

"HOPE AACR certified teams are required to go through specialized training such as: crisis intervention skills (emotional first aid), animal behavior and stress management, critical incident stress management, incident command system training, first aid and CPR, and pet first aid, to name a few.

In addition, crisis response teams desensitize their dogs to common sights, sounds, and smells they may encounter at a crisis scenes. Crisis response work is appropriate for dogs only, which is mainly due to societal norms. It's common for people to see service dogs or working dogs in public places."

At the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), crisis response dogs are valued for helping victims and first responders alike. "It's amazing how quickly Wally and Gio [two crisis response dogs] relax and disarm people," said Staci Beers, coordinator for the FBI Victim Assistance Rapid Deployment Team in a press release.

"When we respond to a mass casualty event where emotions are high, their calming nature enable victims to engage with us and learn about the services we offer."4 Most people who get involved in training programs for crisis canines do so because they wish to support their communities, or others, in need, donating generously of their time and money to do so. Yet, for the people touched by comfort canines, the benefits received in their time of need are truly priceless.

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