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Certified therapy dogs assist with human trauma

Article

The nonprofit organization Crisis Response Canines is actively supporting communities affected by critical events that include mass violence and natural disasters

Crisis Response Canines (CRC) is a nonprofit organization comprised of certified K9 teams throughout the United States. The group’s mission is to provide strength, comfort, and emotional support to individuals, families, communities, and first responders experiencing intense traumatic emotions in the aftermath of critical incidents.

CRC members are volunteers who dedicate thousands of hours each year supporting those impacted by personal or community crises. The K9 teams are highly trained and certified to effectively interact in the aftermath of critical incidents and work in crisis environments. Teams provide comfort and support to those affected by mass shootings, large-scale accidents, violence, abuse, tragic death, suicides, terrorism, and natural disasters such as fire, flood, or hurricanes.

CRC handlers are required to hold certifications from FEMA’s National Incident Command Structure Training and know critical incident stress management (CISM) principles, as well as taking other education courses and training programs. CRC canines also hold certifications and go through training processes. These include national dog therapy and crisis working dog certifications, and the American Kennel Club (AKC)’s Canine Good Citizen programs.

CRC uses a blended model of CISM and animal assisted crisis response (AARC). It is a model that has been developed and tested by John Hunt, cofounder, and chief operating officer of CRC. CISM is a comprehensive, integrative, multicomponent crisis intervention system with a longstanding history of effective interactions with individuals and groups in the aftermath of a critical incident.

Mary Law, MSN, RN, CCISM, CRC, healthcare liaison, noted that “the blended model has been effectively utilized within healthcare for the past several years and additionally has proven value when applied to interactions with first responders.”

“CISM is a toolkit with a variety of tools that you use during different stages post incident. One of them is the critical incident stress debriefing. When we are called in, often people are not willing to talk, or are a bit reluctant. When you introduce AACR into that milieu, it is transformational. People get to experience that moment of respite, they often begin talking to the dogs, and then they begin talking to us. Their story comes out and we’re able to provide that brief bridge to the next step, whether it’s the natural emotional course in the wake of a post-traumatic event, or if needed, to get additional help,” Law added.

One Person Pointing Behavior Exercise ( Images courtesy of the Brown University Canine Cognition Research Lab)

One Person Pointing Behavior Exercise ( Images courtesy of the Brown University Canine Cognition Research Lab)

Hunt, a retired New Jersey State Police major, was deployed to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, during which he served as the commanding officer for New Jersey’s Operation LEAD (Louisiana Emergency Assistance Support) and observed how therapy dogs played such an integral role in mitigating stress. He noted that despite the challenges associated with the hurricane, tensions eased in the presence of the dogs, and the community and police began to communicate. “It had such a profound impact on me that I started really focusing on the potential role of canines during critical events,” he said.

CRC volunteer handlers and their canine partners, offer a level of comfort and calmness that only a canine can. The goal of CRC is to establish a nationwide network of canine crisis response teams who can be deployed immediately to where they are needed most.

Hunt has 3 Rottweilers, all of which are certified for ATD, CRC and Law Enforcement Defense Systems, and Working Service Dog. These dogs have responded to mass shooting and disaster events that include Pulse Nightclub (Orlando, Florida), Route 91 Festival, (Las Vegas, Nevada), First Baptist Church (Sutherland Springs, Texas), Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Parkland, Florida), Tree of Life Synagogue (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and Champlain Towers (Surfside, Florida). Most recently, the team responded to the Uvalde, Texas, community following a school shooting.

“Our teams provide emotional support to assist the first responders and communities that have been affected by a tragic event,” said Andrea Hering, CEO and president of CRC. “Our canines are a bridge to communication to help break down the barriers that have been put up by someone who had experienced a tragic event. Our handlers are CISM trained to effectively interact individuals dealing with complex emotions after experiencing a tragedy.”

Crisis Response Canines in action

When Crisis Response Canines deployed to Uvalde, they interacted with the first responders, dispatchers, hospital staff, clergy, and other members of the small, tight-knit community. “Our canines were there merely as support, especially because they don’t ask unwise questions, such as ‘how are you today?” Hering said.

CRC took a team of 6 canines, their handlers, and a healthcare liaison to Uvalde, where they had been asked to work with children, and embedded with incident command. “Often after a tragedy or similar event, people do not want to speak, as they cannot wrap their heads around what has occurred. At times we just find them wanting to hold on to our dogs, pet our dogs, and then they start talking,” said Hunt.

“We merely just hold the other end of the leash and allow that person to begin expressing some of the things they felt or experienced,” noted Hering. “Our role as the handler is provide the psychological first aid. We can aid that individual on how to take the next steps in processing what just happened.”

“We can point them to resources. We can identify that some of these feelings that they’re feeling are ‘normal’ after experiencing a tragedy. We can talk them through the process. The dog bridges that gap of communication. It's just that quiet, silent comfort that a dog can provide, especially with children,” Hering continued.

In Uvalde, Hering said she also conducted several stress debriefings with police officers who were on the scene immediately after the school shooting. She said the CRC dogs were a comfort to them and helped break down communication barriers with the public.

This deployment was similar to the trip CRC members took to Southerland Springs Texas in 2017 following a church shooting that also involved children. Many of the counselors didn’t know how to speak to the children about what had just happened, according to Hering. “Once we brought the dogs in, a lot of that communication that they were trying to get out of the kids, their feelings- the dogs brought it out,” she noted.

“With the dogs present, one could break down those communication barriers. The children feel comfortable, and then they start talking about their feelings. At that point you could start working through some of their feelings and emotions, that without the dogs they wouldn’t discuss,” she added.

CRC also supports individuals in crisis in other ways. Hunt said he was recently asked by a nurse to visit a hospitalized girl in Pennsylvania with a canine trained to be therapeutic. The girl was about to undergo a critical surgery with a poor prognosis, he said. “I walked in her room with my dog, Axel, and the smile that came across her face and the joy that it brought for just a few minutes gave her some respite,” he added.

Caring for canines that serve

Deployments with CRC can be exhausting for dogs, who are tired from traveling and long working days, according to Hering. “It is especially important that we notice that our canines exhibit stress signals, and that our handlers can ‘read’ the canines as well as properly decompress their dogs in the evening,” she added.

Hunt said that CRC ensures the dogs are properly taken care of during and after their deployments. Each CRC handler is responsible for their dog’s veterinary care, and taking them to their own veterinarian for check-ups, routine exams, appropriate vaccinations. CRC has also received veterinary support from Kevin Kicker, DVM, of the Wauwatosa Veterinary Clinic, in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Kicker provides routine veterinary services as necessary and serves on the CRC board of directors. According to Hunt, Kicker oversees the treatment and care of CRC dogs and serves as veterinary liaison when on deployments.

“Went I went to Uvalde, my dog Axel had a small sore on his paw,” said Hunt. “With temperatures there [higher than] 100 degrees, Dr Kicker helped, and prescribed medication as treatment.”

Conclusion

Law noted that the work of CRC is to provide comfort, healing moments, and respite for individuals who have witnessed horrific events. In Uvalde, especially with children, the CRC dogs were able to provide comfort and allow the children to talk, to open up about their feelings, and to smile. “Hopefully, we can help [communities] in that bridge to recovery,” said Hunt.

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