for National Geographic News
The simple act of petting a dog can lift people's spirits, and no one knows that better than Cindy Ehlers.
In 1998, Ehlers created Hope Crisis Response, a nonprofit organization that provides animal-assisted support to people traumatized by crises and disasters such as last year's terrorist attacks on September 11.
Similar to search-and-rescue dogs, the 60 crisis-response teams throughout the country go anywhere they are needed. The difference is that Hope Crisis dogs help rescue people emotionally.
Ehlers, an animal behaviorist, started Hope Crisis after she and her therapy dog, Bear, helped students cope with the aftermath of a high school shooting in Oregon.
At the school, Bear, a keeshond, made her way to five withdrawn teenagers in different parts of the library. Some students talked to the fluffy black-and-gray dog; others held her and cried. Then, with Bear by their side, the teenagers spoke to mental health professionalssomething they had refused to do before, Ehlers said.
"Crisis and trauma can cause isolation, damaging one's ability to communicate and start relationships," Ehlers explained. "Animal-assisted therapy teams with specialized training help to break that isolation and open up the lines of communication."
Dogs can recognize when someone needs emotional support, said Ehlers. When people are afraid, they emit a pheromone in their sweat and breath. Bear, as well as other dogs, probably picks up on that scent, she said.
Being around dogs can have a calming effect. Studies have shown that physiological changes occur when people touch dogs: a drop in heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduced stress.
Never have the health benefits of pets been more evident than after the World Trade Center attacks.
Ehlers and her crisis-response dog Tikva, also a keeshond, were called to New York by the American Red Cross. Ehlers and her dog were sent to an assistance center run by disaster-relief agencies, to join the family of one of victims and accompany them on a ferry boat ride to Ground Zero. It was the first time after the tragedy that the family would see the site, said Ehlers.
Choosing one family among the hundreds of people at the center was difficult. Instead, Ehlers decided to let someone choose her and her dog. Almost immediately after Ehlers walked into the center, a middle-aged woman reached out and grabbed Tikva.
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