Crisis-Response Dogs Offer Comfort After Tragedy

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
November 11, 2002
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At the school, Bear, a keeshond, made her way to five withdrawn teenagers in different parts of the library.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 professionals—something 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.

Health Benefits

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.

"What's her name?" asked the woman.

When Ehlers told her, the woman's brown eyes lit up.

"Tikva means 'hope' in Hebrew," the woman replied excitedly.

Ehlers learned that the woman's husband had worked at the World Trade Center. When the attacks occurred, he had stayed behind to help a coworker who was too afraid to leave the towering building. He had been an avid dog lover and owned a blue merle border collie that looked similar to Tikva.

"To her it was a sign from her husband and God," said Ehlers. "Tikva was brought to her to give her hope through that difficult time."

The connection made that day still lives. The two women have stayed in touch through phone calls, letters, and visits. This past September, Ehlers and Tikva accompanied the woman to the one-year anniversary ceremony in New York.

Special Training

Hard work, dedication, and specialized training are required for a dog and its handler to become a crisis-response team. The dog must be registered as a therapy animal and pass a pre-screening test. Each team then completes an intensive 40-hour workshop that includes riding on different modes of transportation and participating in mock disasters.

The owners must learn how to detect stress in their dogs and themselves.

Teams that pass the initial stage undergo additional training as a group and with other organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Regular practice sessions are also held.

"We train every day and hope that we never need it," said Sue Sappok, Hope Crisis Response regional director for Southern California.

Handlers pay for their own training and donate their time. Within the last year, Sappok has spent $1,500 on training for herself and her German shepherd, Chief.

Hope Crisis Response wants to expand its services to include helping victims of crime and people who have lost their homes in fires.

Recently, Sappok and her dog, along with several other canine-response teams, were called to the Williams Fire that raged through the Angeles National Forest in California.

The first night they arrived, Sappock said, there was much tension in the firefighters' camp. Nearby homes were in danger of being destroyed, and the men and women were exhausted from battling the out-of-control blaze.

Her dog's presence helped ease the anxiety, said Sappok, a former firefighter. One man lay on the ground with Chief and smiled as he rubbed the dog's belly.

"The firefighters missed their families and they missed their kids," she said. "Talking and holding the dogs just made them feel better."

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This season of Dogs With Jobs sniffs out a truffle hound in Italy and goes to Florida to track down a bat dog and a termite buster. Fourteen breeds never before seen on the show make an appearance, including Japanese Shiba Inu, Gos d'Atura Catala (Catalan sheepdogs), Spanish water dogs, the Hungarian Pumi, and Karelian bear dogs.

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