Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Comfort Dogs can come to environments where there has been a tragic incident and bring comfort in a way that is beyond words. Sometimes in these situations, words fail us. But the dogs just listen. They will lie down and be petted and let people hug them. This can go a long way to helping humans cope with the unbearable.
Therapy Dogs International (TDI) is one organization that trains and prepares dogs and handlers to respond to disasters. They have sent teams to respond to many incidents, including September 11 in New York City, the Oklahoma City bombing, Hurricane Katrina, and the Newtown, Connecticut, Sandy Hook School attack.
The TDI website describes the scene in Oklahoma, where not only the victims and their families were soothed by their presence, but these dogs were hugged and petted by the families of the victims, displaced persons, members of the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, clergy, police officers, firefighters, U.S. Army Reserve troops, and other relief workers. The presence of these dogs helps rescue workers to recharge and face what no human being should have to face.
TDI explains that after the attack on September 11, 2011, 96 search and rescue dog teams were sent to Ground Zero. In addition to finding alive people and bodies, many of these teams provided essential healing through giving rescue workers a dose of comfort. In addition to the crucial services of the search and rescue dog teams, approximately 500 human-animal bond therapy teams deployed to become part of the animal-assisted crisis response effort.
"The utilization of trained and evaluated animal teams in a time of crisis and for trauma recovery is becoming more essential to address the physical and psychological needs of the persons present at these events. As Teal describes the value of these teams:
The visiting animal is utilized as a transitional object to provide those in crisis and traumatic situations with a reality orienting relationship providing for solace, deep comfort, and reduction of physiological stress signs. The utilization of animals in trauma and crisis response may provide critical grounding experiences for the beginnings of future psychological recovery and healing from the aforementioned events." (U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, Canine issue).
TDI reports that twenty teams of dogs and handlers went to Sandy Hook, working in shifts, and many stayed over the Christmas holiday. “When the children see the dogs, they are so happy.” But the severity of the situation has caused TDI to re-evaluate working conditions for the dogs as well as the handlers. Having learned the lessons from these various events, much more attention is being placed on ensuring the well-being of the animals who work tirelessly. It is essential that handlers recognize the signs of emotional and physical fatigue in their animals and give them a break. They must also know how to help the animal recharge physically and mentally after being of service to humans in need.
As the TDI website states: "Visiting in the aftermath of a disaster is quite a bit different from our regular (therapy) visitations. The dogs must sometimes be able to withstand as many as 30 kids storming the dogs from all sides. Not every dog is able to handle this. The handlers also had to learn to recognize stress in the dog. In extreme situations like this, the dogs should work much shorter times (about one hour). After this, some rest is needed. Some smaller dogs are not able to handle such long time periods in a stretch."
Comfort Dogs Visit After School Shootings and Other Horrific Events
Comfort dogs are trained to be calm, no matter what is going on. They can ignore gunshots, smoke, yelling, and other sounds of crisis. They will lie down next to a person, and hug or be petted, creating a feeling of reassurance that is badly needed when people are dealing with the after-effects of trauma and crisis.
Comfort dogs increase calm, promote well-being, and increase resilience for those who can't leave a situation. Or even when they can leave, the images are haunting.
Comfort dogs can be an invaluable part of an overall plan to help people continue to recover after facing situations no human should have to face.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection