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Thursday, October 10, 2013

If the world isn't going to the dogs, it should.


This is Abby, our six-year-old yellow Lab. She makes people happy.


This is Tess, our seven-year-old golden. She also makes people happy.

They are both HOPE dogs and they do marvelous things. My wife Kathy and I belong to a volunteer organization known as HOPE AACR (Animal Assisted Crisis Response) which does just that.  The animals are our pets and this is our avocation.

Early on, HOPE was at 9-11 when a handful of dogs and handlers brought comfort and some sense of emotional relief to those first responders and families of the many who lost loved ones there. HOPE dogs have been at Virgina Tech, Hurricane Katrina,  TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors... of the military fallen), wildfires, train disasters, shelters of hurricane, tornado and flood victims around the country and so many more places where people have serious need for comfort. We work with The Red Cross and other organizations as part of a large network of assistance where there is need. There are about 160 HOPE person/dog teams in 24 states and that number is growing.

And for anyone who has not experienced what comfort dogs can bring, the enormous response and gravitation to the dogs in traumatic situations is unbelievable. I'm convinced God put these animals here for this greater purpose.

A few weeks back, we and Tess were among those HOPE dog teams that were requested by the Navy to help bring needed comfort to all at the Washington Navy Yard. The shootings there on Sept. 16th took 12 lives (plus the shooter) and brought trauma, fear and heartbreak to all the military, staff and contractors on the base. It was enormous to those who were in building 197, the site of the tragedy. We worked under the Navy team of experts and psychologists responsible for the personnel recovery program.

We were there with our dogs for three days. There were five and six dog/handler teams per day at the Navy Yard over a two week period right after the shootings. We are second responders. The need was great and the response to the dogs had to be see to be believed. As the teams visited building after building, some off-site as well, we were often met by welcoming committees who cheered. We visited desk to desk in most cases, and if it was a secured building, we had an escort... but we tried to miss no one. One woman, seeing us from a third floor widow, rushed down to ask us to please come to her building.

We worked the Yard and were present where those directly affected by the shootings returned for the first time to claim their belonging as they were brought from the crime scene. It was most emotional. We were stopped by everyone from Navy Brass to the security teams, contractors, staff and anyone on the base. We heard stories and shared tears. What we heard most is, "Thank you for your service." Unbelievable that this should come to us when it is so much the other way around.

One could never imagine the scenario unless it happened to them. It was so moving... and also stressful for us and our animals too. It brought the enormity of what happened more clearly into our focus... something that just doesn't come across any other way.

All of the HOPE dogs and owner/handlers go through a training and education process to reach this level. Our animals are certified working dogs who do their magic as second nature to what dogs do. And the dogs know their job well.

When one of the Navy officers asked us what our dogs do, the answer was, "They make you smile," if only to put you in another place and give respite and calm, even for an instant.  Check it out. Dogs make a difference in lives in so many ways.

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