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Condolences, prayers, blood donations and financial contributions poured into Uvalde, Texas in the days following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. Therapy dogs have them too.
At least five organizations in Texas and beyond have deployed dogs to the city, where they comforted mourners at a Wednesday evening vigil and visited hospitals, churches, schools and other locations. They offer support to the grieving community in the form of wet noses, warm hugs, wagging tails and listening ears.
Therapy dogs provide a valuable service to people responding to traumatic incidents, facilitating decompression and breaking down communication barriers, Crisis Response Canines President Andrea Hering told NPR via email.
“Dogs are non-judgmental and don’t ask rash questions,” she added.
Teams travel from all over the country
Crisis Response Canines sends six teams of handlers and certified dogs – Tarik, Exon, Axel, Zodiac, Murphy and Macy – to Uvalde from New Jersey, Ohio and Florida.
The group’s crisis response teams provided support after more than a dozen mass shootings across the country, including those at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, from Oxford High School in Michigan and more recently from Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, NY
Another group, Lutheran Church Charities, said on Facebook that its comfort dogs were invited to Uvalde by the school district and local church leaders.
Their LCC Comfort Dog Ministry is deploying eight golden retrievers from various parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado this week, with more dogs to come.
“We know comfort is needed to help this shocked and devastated community and the first responders serving them,” the ministry said.
Like Crisis Response Canines, their teams have responded to other massacres across the country – including Oxford High School and the attack in Waukesha, Wisconsin – and the group encourages supporters to donate to a fund for their expenses. travel.
Other comfort dogs and handlers come from a little closer to home, such as Therapy Animals of San Antonio and Canines 4 Christ, which sends six teams including therapy dogs to Uvalde in partnership with the Army of Hi.
Chaplain Kris Blair has coordinated a group of volunteers through Canines 4 Christ and other therapy dog organizations (she is also the therapy dog program coordinator at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas , but points out that the center has not officially deployed canine teams for Uvalde).
She told NPR that she wants to “help people heal through our dogs.”
“So many people put up walls when they have strong emotions, and just lending them our dogs will sometimes break down those walls,” she explained. “Humans can’t necessarily get through, but dogs will definitely start nibbling at that wall, and [are] able to distract them a bit from all the chaos that’s going on and let them focus on something joyful.”
Dogs and handlers go through a lot of training
Although interactions between comfort dogs and humans are generally calming and gentle, they require extensive training and preparation.
Hering explained that Crisis Response Canine dogs receive therapy dog certification as well as additional training “to handle the unpredictable environments and stress of deployments” – giving them what she called Crisis’s elite title. Response Dog.
Their handlers undergo training in critical incident stress management and psychological first aid courses so that they can “appropriately interact with people experiencing intense emotions after experiencing tragic events”, a she added.
Blair pointed out that dogs who respond to these seizures have undergone testing and training, and are “not just your home Fido.” And she said their human handlers don’t always realize how traumatic their visits can be.
Although different teams have different personalities and comfort levels, she said, their handlers try to remind survivors that they are not alone and that even people who don’t know them care about them. .
Bonnie Fear, the LCC K-9 crisis response coordinator, said hello america that emergency response teams face much shock, tears and distress in the days following a mass shooting, and that people are not yet ready to process or answer questions.
“We listen if they talk,” she added. “We’re quiet. We let the dogs connect with people and they can express their feelings in that moment and we’re not counselors so we’re just there, standing with them in their grief.”
Comfort dogs have a big impact in many communities
Blair said Canines 4 Christ volunteers attended the scene of the shooting in Uvalde, where they avoided crime scene tape but gave law enforcement a short break and the chance to get some dog love.
She said “there were tears” when dogs comforted staff at a local hospital. They also traveled to the civic center to meet with families, including children who were inside the elementary school during the shooting.
Blair said she heard a child say something like, “It’s really good that you brought all those dogs, because kids like me who were in school, those dogs make us happy. .”
“This little kid has a big trauma that he’s going to have to go through, and his whole family is going to have to go through it for a very long time,” Blair said. “If we can play a role in the healing process, we are happy to do so.”
Tim Hetzner, President and CEO of LCC, said CMG about a powerful experience he witnessed immediately after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
He was at a community center with his dog, Howe, when a couple arrived with their young son.
“Howe looked up at the boy, stood up, walked over to the boy, rolled over his legs and the boy fell on top of him. They just lay there,” he recalled . “After about 10 minutes, the boy lifted Howe’s ear and told him everything that had happened in that class. The parents started crying because it was the boy’s first time speaking up. days. The first time and it was a dog.”
He said the group’s K-9 unit has grown from four dogs in 2008 to more than 130 dogs in 27 states and has seen a marked increase in requests for comfort dogs over the past two years.
Notably, more than a dozen therapy dogs from different groups returned to school with students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after the 2018 mass shooting there. .
They have become a fixture on campus, so much so that their official names and likenesses have been incorporated into the directory.