Crisis-Response Dogs Offer Comfort After Tragedy

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"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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