December 4, 2017
From Ginger Nickel, BA, BS, Oregon Area Coordinator, HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response
When I was young, Babe, a rough-coated Collie, was my constant companion. We played together, wandered the neighborhood (it was the 1950s) and enjoyed a mostly carefree life. We shared snacks and were just all-around best buddies. In retrospect I realize she also was there for me during my most difficult times. Babe stood or sat quietly while I buried my face in her fur and cried when my brother tore the head off my teddy bear, when my best friend moved to a new town, and when my grandfather died. She just seemed to absorb my pain and sadness. Babe asked no questions, gave no advice. She was simply present. I always felt better after a good cry into her long coat.
Fast-forward 60 years. Now I am part of a HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (AACR) team and understand more fully what I experienced with Babe as a child. HOPE AACR is a national, all-volunteer 501(c)(3) organization that was born out of the experience of Cindy Ehlers and Bear, a Eugene, Oregon therapy dog team that responded to the Thurston High School shooting in 1998. When the dogs were present, counselors observed an immediate sense of relaxation and comfort in those experiencing trauma-related stress. HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, with the mission of providing comfort and encouragement through animal-assisted support to individuals affected by crises and disasters, was founded the following year.
Similarly, Red Cross mental health counselors and chaplains at the Pier 94 Family Assistance Center during the response to 9/11 recognized the Hope AACR teams’ ability to engage and relax people in a matter of minutes, providing a sense of safety, comfort, and relief from the overwhelming grief. After watching numerous interactions, a chaplain requested HOPE AACR teams for the firefighters at the World Trade Center site. It was there that an extraordinary miracle occurred. “Their (firefighters’) defenses were high. When the crisis response dogs would come along, they would react and their eyes would light up or they would smile.” 1
In April 2014, while working with individuals affected by the Oso, Washington mudslide, Reverend Michael E. Rogers, LMFT and CERT Disaster Worker, experienced what he has called “Rapid Rapport.” Rogers observed that the presence of HOPE AACR canines greatly reduced the amount of time it took distressed and traumatized individuals to open up to counselors, reducing by a quarter the amount of time the disaster stress caregiver needed to build rapport in order to begin providing care.2 Fortunately, more and more crisis response workers are beginning to observe and appreciate what a registered therapy dog with additional training in crisis work and a skilled handler can add to the difficult job of meeting the emotional needs of victims and first responders.
In order to be a HOPE AACR team, both the canine and the handler are trained, tested, and certified to provide emotional comfort and support to people affected by crises and disasters. Training is rigorous and ongoing with teams required to meet mandatory annual CEU hours, classes, and training drills. Training topics include human first aid and CPR, pet first aid and CPR, psychological first aid, the Incident Command System, crisis communication skills, stress management and self-care, and canine behavior and welfare.3
Since 2001, HOPE AACR teams have lent assistance to relief organizations by supporting and comforting people affected by crises and disasters. Our experienced canine and handler teams have responded to the aftermath of events from individual traumas to large scale disasters including Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the Washington Navy Yard shooting in 2013. Oregon HOPE AACR teams responded to Hurricane Harvey callouts in Texas and Florida, the Eagle Creek fire, the Seattle King County Clinic, and have been recognized for their work with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA), The Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, law enforcement agencies, and schools. All HOPE AACR members are insured, and teams are available on short notice at no cost to your agency.
1Bovsun, M., (2016). Legacy: The heroic dogs of 9/11 are all gone now, but they are still making a difference. AKC Family Dog Digital Edition, September/October, 2016, 36-38. Accessed online 11/17/2017.
2Rogers, M. E. (2014) Disaster Mental Health Field Work Enhanced by Animal-Assisted Crisis Response. HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response. www.hopeaacr.org. Accessed online 11/17/2017.
3National Standards Committee for Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, (2010). Animal-Assisted Crisis Response National Standards. HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response. www.hopeaacr.org. Accessed online 11/17/2017.