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How Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Help After Global or Mass Tragedies

How Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Help After Global or Mass Tragedies

Discussing mass tragedies is a weighty topic. Unfortunately, the news of tragedy is all too common in our world. However, when we look for the helpers, we see the bright spots, those that shine as they help soothe a community shattered by violence. The humanitarian response after a tragedy can be moving to witness. We see individuals volunteer services, assistance, and funds and offer acts of kindness to support a grieving community reeling from tragic events. It’s then that we see the best of humanity rallying to unite and help others however they can.

Table of Contents

Therapy Dogs as a Crisis Intervention

Assistance Animals are among the army of volunteers who respond to crises and help bridge the gap after traumatic events to help individuals cope after any tragedy (violence, mass shooting, or disaster). By leveraging humans’ natural bond with dogs, they offer emotional support and help to connect individuals to mental healthcare.

The use of Therapy Dog Interventions was previously viewed as a heart-warming gesture rather than a credible science-based treatment method. In recent years, however, animal-assisted crisis response has grown in credibility.

What Is Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and activities. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, mental health disorders, and trauma. Certified therapy dogs work in hospitals, schools, community centers, disaster relief sites, war zones, and wherever else they can find to do good.

How Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Help After Global or Mass Tragedies

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Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.

Pet therapy began in the late 1800s when doctors started using animals to treat patients. Today we see animal-assisted interventions taking a forefront in Crisis Response. The FBI now has Crisis Response Canines to help victims cope with tragedy. Hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic utilize comfort dogs as an essential resource in patient care. Overall, Animal-Assisted interventions are trending in healthcare, especially in hospitals, schools, and rehabilitation centers. Therapy Dog Interventions are utilized in psychiatric care. They can benefit those struggling with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying or traumatic event.

The Benefits of Therapy Dogs

Research from UCLA Health, one of America’s top hospitals, shows many physical and mental health benefits for recipients of Animal-Assisted Interventions.

How Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Help After Global or Mass Tragedies

Mental Health Benefits

  • Interaction with animals can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and boredom.

  • Simply petting animals can release an automatic relaxation response and mood-boosting hormones: serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin.

  • Provide comfort and emotional support.

  • Increase mental stimulation (assist in memory recall).

  • Provide a good distraction or escape.

  • Reduce resistance to therapy.

  • Kids can have a more challenging time processing trauma. Interaction with animals can help children open up to deal with their emotions.

  • Provides social interaction and emotional support to survivors.

Physical Health Benefits

  • Interaction with Therapy Dogs has proven to lower blood pressure and increase levels of endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers).

  • Improves cardiovascular health.

  • May reduce the number of medications people need.

  • Calms rapid breathing for those with anxiety.

  • Decreased occurrence of panic attacks.

  • Release calming or comforting hormones and create an environment that supports the healing process.

  • They decrease overall physical pain.

  • Participants enjoy therapy sessions more and experience less stress during counseling sessions.

How Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Help After Global or Mass Tragedies

Therapy Dogs present considerable benefits for children with Autism:

  • Many children with autism experience a deep bond with animals and relate better to them than humans.

  • Children with Autism engaged in significantly greater use of language and social interactions when their therapy sessions included animals compared to sessions without animals.

Comfort Dogs Make a Big Impact in Hurting Communities

We’ve explored all the benefits of Therapy Dog Interventions; now, let’s take a closer look at some real-life examples of their impact.

New York City: Mass Tragedy

9/11 was the largest terrorist attack and mass casualty event our nation had ever seen. The attacks that day in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, left nearly 3,000 people dead and took a devastating emotional toll on Americans.

Ripple effects from the events of 9/11 were felt around the world. After the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, all eyes were on New York City, NY, as they searched through the piles of rubble for survivors. There were 318 Therapy Dogs and their handlers that worked tirelessly at Pier 94(with families of the victims) and consoled hundreds of police officers, firefighters, and rescue workers at Ground Zero.

Many people in the U.S. had never seen Therapy Dogs in action before 9/11, so it brought a new awareness of the work of Therapy Animals. Pet therapy organizations from around the country sent teams to help comfort grieving families and aid workers.

How Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Help After Global or Mass Tragedies
PC: NY Daily News

Cindy Ehlers, who runs the K9 Crisis Response Team at Pawsitive Pet in Eugene, Oregon, and her dog Tikva traveled to New York to help the victims’ families and first responders deal with the magnitude of pain and suffering they would encounter. They spent two weeks at Ground Zero comforting victims’ families and the overwhelmed rescue workers. During breaks searching through the rubble, many would pet her and find a brief moment of joy despite the suffering and chaos surrounding them. Tikva’s handler recalled, “Some of them never said a word all day but would turn around at the end of the day and ask, ‘Can you bring her again tomorrow?'”

Dr. Stephanie LaFarge of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was the ASPCA’s senior director of counseling, who coordinated the Therapy Dog teams on the ground after 9/11. She and her dog Sophie spent weeks offering emotional support at the dedicated area nearby where those impacted by the disaster could seek services and counseling. She remarked, “it’s a beautiful little dance that goes on between a therapy dog and a person under stress.” She also noted that since this event received so much attention, it caused many relief organizations to realize that Therapy Dog Intervention can help in times of crisis.

San Bernardino, California: Mass Shooting

After the mass terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, California, on December 2nd, 2015, the FBI’s Victim Assistance Rapid Deployment Team was among the first to respond. When the team assessed what kind of support could best help the victims and their families cope with the tragedy, they first connected the grieving victims and their families with various support services. 

How Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Help After Global or Mass Tragedies
FBI Dogs Gio & Wally - PC:

They provided counseling, financial aid, housing, and medical care. To help the victims cope with their grief, they turned to two English Labrador Retrievers, specially trained Therapy Dogs, to help soothe and comfort the victims. 

Two special dogs, Wally and Giovanni, were sent to help survivors. They were a part of a pilot project launched by the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance. Wally, a six-year-old Belgian Malinois, and his partner Giovanni, a five-year-old German Shepherd, were deployed as part of the Crisis Response Canines team. Both dogs trained at the National Police K9 Center at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. Contrary to what you might expect, these FBI dogs are not trained in bomb detection or drug detection, but they can detect if someone is upset and help calm them down. Wally and Gio assist victims and families impacted by crimes around the country by providing emotional support during times of crisis.

The Assistant Director at the Office of Victim Assistance, Kathryn Turman, said the Crisis Response Canines are a critical addition to the Rapid Deployment Team, which helps victims and their families recover after a tragedy. “Our goal is to get back to normalcy for the victims and their families, and one way we do that is by giving them something positive to look forward to.” She also shared, “With San Bernardino and other places we’ve taken them, the dogs have worked a certain type of magic with people under a great deal of stress. That’s been the greatest value.”

Orlando, Florida: Mass Shooting

Therapy Dog Interventions impact more than just the survivors. Police officers, paramedics, and other first responders bravely run toward danger while others run to safety. In June of 2016, a shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, claimed 50 lives and left 58 others wounded. The organization Crisis Response Canines was asked to aid survivors. According to their website, the mission of Crisis Response Canines 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. 

How Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Help After Global or Mass Tragedies
PC: American Kennel Club Memorial

In this instance, the Therapy teams were asked to focus on the first responders. John Hunt, co-founder of Crisis Response Canines, and Gunther, his 3-year-old Rottweiler Gunther, were among the on-site teams. Hunt recalled the following story “One paramedic was reluctant to engage until he observed ‘the Rottweiler.’ He then opened up about his desire to go into harm’s way to render first aid to those who were shot. As he spoke, several of us noticed how he petted Gunther and kept him close. That’s the role of our special canines. Don’t ask questions, just be there. Allow folks to feel them and provide a moment of decompression and comfort.”

Uvalde, Texas: School Shooting

Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) deployed two teams of Therapy Dogs to Uvalde, Texas, in May of 2022 after a shooting at Robb Elementary School where 19 children and two adults tragically lost their lives. The LCC Comfort dogs were deployed to Uvalde to spend time comforting families, friends, and other community members through their trauma and grief.

How Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Help After Global or Mass Tragedies
PC: Lutheran Church Charities

The LCC K-9 team consists of purebred Golden Retrievers whose calming nature help to soothe individuals who have experienced emotional turmoil. A spokesperson for the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs shared that these dogs work exceptionally well with children.

“Particularly with children, they have a very hard time processing the trauma and grief associated with mass shootings, especially if they lose their classmates. It often takes them days to speak about it. The unconditional love and comfort of an LCC K-9 Comfort Dog gives children, as well as their parents or other adults, the opportunity to feel the softness of their fur and the warmth of friendship received from a Comfort Dog who willingly listens without judgment.”

For a community shattered by unimaginable violence, these special dogs are helping them to grieve and endure.

Some Good News

It’s clear that these incredible dogs are helpful to their human counterparts in stressful and traumatic situations. The good news for Therapy Animals is that this is not a one-way street. They benefit from these therapeutic interventions as well. Studies have shown that Therapy Dogs have increased rates of endorphins and oxytocin more than the average family pet.

I am so thankful for all of the amazing animals that offer support in various ways. Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Service Dogs all deserve a standing ovation and this world would not be the same without them.
ESA or PSA Certification?

The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!


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