“The dogs bring comfort where humans cannot go. I call them natural healers and ‘seeing heart’ dogs.”
Lois Abrams, psychologist
“Apple Jack” and “Bubble” walked slowly among the 1,000 people who sought shelter here after being forced to evacuate their homes by the Southern California wildfires, hoping to bring a little bit of happiness and joy to them even if for only a few minutes.
“I call them natural healers,” said psychologist Lois Abrams.
Indeed, Apple Jack and Bubble found people young and old anxious to come up to meet them. Their new acquaintances often left with a smile on their faces, having forgotten for the moment the uncertain and dismal situation they were in.
All it took was a little “pet therapy.”
Both Apple Jack, a 180-pound Newfoundland, and Bubble, a 7-pound Yorkshire Terrier, are part of Hope Crisis Response, a relatively new volunteer non-profit organization designed to offer “animal assisted emotional support” to both disaster responders and those who have been affected by a crisis or disaster.
Apple Jack, along with owner Dori McLaurin, and Bubble and her owner Carol King, were among seven “teams” from Hope Crisis Response providing services Sunday at an evacuation center set up in a hangar at the San Bernardino International Airport.
The organization had been invited to help by the American Red Cross in San Bernardino County. It had provided “pet therapy” for firefighters in the county last year, McLaurin said.
King said the program is aimed at helping people of all ages deal with a difficult situation.
“It’s for young people, seniors, children,” she explained. “For people who have really lost everything, it’s comforting and distracting. It’s easy to pet the dog for just a few minutes to forget how tragic everything is.”
“The dogs bring comfort where humans cannot go,” added Abrams. “I call them natural healers and ‘seeing heart’ dogs.”
Hope Crisis Response was founded by Cindy Ehlers in 1998 after she responded to a high school shooting in Springfield, Ore. After Sept. 11, 2001, she and three other teams spent about three weeks at Ground Zero in New York City, providing animal assisted emotional support to both responders and survivors, according to Richard Lowy, president of the Oregon headquartered group.
Lowy said only four dogs had been certified for the program at that time.
“After 9/11, there was an outpouring of support,” McLaurin said. “People wanted to get involved.”
Lowy, who flew to California with his wife and their dog to assist in the pet therapy program for the wildfire evacuees, said more people with pets were still needed to make the program a success nationwide. He said the goal right now is to build a strong base of people who are flexible and can respond to disasters.
“People who do pet therapy and go to hospitals can decide when they want to go,” he noted. “Unlike a lot of other types of pet therapy, when you respond to disasters you can’t schedule it.”
Lowy said training sessions for Hope Crisis Response have been held in Eugene, Ore., in New York, New Jersey, Virginia and California. Future sessions are scheduled in New Hampshire, Arizona and Nebraska, according to the organization’s Web site.
The training sessions last three or four days.
“Each course is designed to inform, teach and prepare Animal Assisted Activity/Animal Assisted Therapy teams to provide emotional and psychological support and comfort during and/or after a crisis or disaster,” the organization said. “Both training courses involve both human and animal crisis response training as well as practice of handler/animal present skills in a simulated disaster situation.”
King said training includes getting the dogs to be comfortable in a variety of non-crisis situations, such as being around a fire station with the vehicles running, seeing firefighters in their breathing apparatus and being around buses, trains or horses.
Abrams said her training as a psychologist has come in handy in training the dog handlers “so they know how to listen, how to be human comfort as well as provide K9 comfort.”
She said the animals provide “a wonderful distraction” for both responders and people affected by a disaster. She said exposing people to the animals can help prevent traumatic stress disorder.
“The dogs do better work than I do,” she said with a laugh.
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