Behind the scenes at the nation's most horrific tragedies, a small group of volunteers, two- and four-legged, unseen and unsung, work quietly to break trauma's grip on the survivors.
Because they know that a few minutes with a sensitive dog can bring a smile or vanquish the pain for a moment, one or several of the 92 therapy dog handlers and their dogs that make up HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response will journey (often hundreds of miles) when asked, to provide comfort after tragedy strikes.
They were on the scene after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and the shootings at Virginia Tech. And they've been at scores of horrors that may not have grabbed national headlines but that slammed a community to its knees.
"People in crisis often feel very isolated," says Amy Rideout, president of the non-profit that has specially trained HOPE teams from coast to coast. "Just reaching out and petting a dog can be the first step in breaking through that."
Like all therapy dog teams, these are people and their pets trained to be patient and kind when dealing with people in need, to look into their eyes and show them that somehow love prevails.
But the HOPE teams "are screened and trained to respond to more intense emotions and in more unpredictable environments and situations" than the regular therapy dog team that visits hospitals, nursing homes and libraries, Rideout says. To join HOPE, teams must undergo such specialized training as crisis intervention, first aid and CPR. On site, HOPE teams often work directly with mental health professionals.
Animals feel the stress, too
It's not the kind of volunteer work that's ideal for every person or therapy dog. It's usually extremely stressful, and there's often little notice before the teams have to pack up and head out. They try to be instantly responsive, Rideout says, even though 80% to 85% have full-time jobs and they almost always have to use vacation time.
They've arrived within hours or days at dozens of crises in recent years, including at the 2005 Glendale Metrolink commuter train crash near Los Angeles that killed 11 and injured nearly 200; in Spokane after a beloved college coach died unexpectedly; at a Montana school after two students died in a wreck; and in an Oregon community after a fire chief was killed in action. They've been regulars at California wildfires for years, helping residents and responders.
"The environments you're in require much more out of the teams," says Rideout, who with her hound Janie was one of the HOPE teams that traveled to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg at the request of the American Red Cross two days after a gunman killed 32 people and wounded many others.
There are safety concerns, and the hours can be long, so the handlers must be alert to "stress signs," she says, and "how to support your dog."
And the animals must be comfortable with all manner of noisy emergency equipment and other sounds, so the group holds training sessions and simulations regularly to present as many experiences as possible.
Economy hits HOPE volunteers
The travel expenses when HOPE responds to "call-outs" are "primarily out of the pockets of teams," Rideout says, so most teams respond to crises that are within a few hundred miles of the responder's home. But the group regularly holds bake sales and other fundraisers to bring in a little supplemental cash to help cover gas or hotel bills when a call-out is far away.
Still, in this economy, HOPE has suffered dropouts. "We lost about 20 teams this year because times are tough and these people knew they wouldn't be able to go," Rideout says. Sixteen new teams are expected to be certified July 11.
Rideout, who's training a new dog now that Janie has been retired, figures that requests will increase and that the people who need them will still surprise them occasionally. When she and Janie traveled to New York a few weeks after 9/11, she discovered "the people we interacted with the most were not always the families but the emergency responders and the volunteers who had traveled far and were away from their families and needed a lift."