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Tag: comfort dogs

Bring in the comfort dogs — again

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Jacob is a golden retriever who gets to go on lots of trips.

In 2016, he got to go to Orlando.

In 2017, he got to go to Las Vegas.

This year’s excursion was back to Florida, to a town called Parkland.

Jacob, you’d think, should be one happy dog, getting to go on all those trips, and getting lots of attention each time.

jacobBut Jacob, a four-year-old dog who lives in Illinois, is a comfort dog, specially trained to help survivors of tragedies.

He was present in the aftermath of the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas (58 left dead), and at the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre (49 left dead).

This week he’s helping the students, teachers and parents dealing with the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left at least 17 people, mostly children, dead.

You’d think, by now, comfort dogs such as he would be wondering about a species that harms its own members with such devastating regularity — and does such woefully little about it.

Likely not. Perhaps dogs don’t wonder about things like that.

Clearly, we humans don’t either — at least not enough to bring about real change.

Instead, we vent. We ache. Then we return to our own comfortable lives — lives not quite as plush and secure and NRA-supported as those politicians lead.

jacob3We are happy to see the comfort dogs arrive at the scene, happy to see people getting helped. The images serve as salve to our wounds — but they are wounds that should stay open, stay oozing and never stop throbbing until we get those politicians to act.

Dogs can lick our wounds. Humans can actually take steps to prevent them in the first place. But they don’t. Why? Because Bubba likes to hunt, and it’s his constitutional right, and if, every year or so, some deranged human decides gunning down fleeing people might be more fun, that’s the price we pay.

The rest of us, and dogs like Jacob, are left to mop up.

Jacob has been working since he was 16 months old. He’s had a lot of on-the-job experience — too much, says Tim Hetzner, president and CEO of Lutheran Church Charities, which runs the K-9 Comfort Dogs Ministry.

“I’d prefer they’d never have to be deployed for these type of situations,” Hetzner said.

Jacob is one of 130 dogs in 23 states who have been trained by LCC to be comfort dogs. They arrive in the aftermath of tragedies to soothe those coping with the trauma or mourning loved ones they lost.

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They are, basically, grief sponges, absorbing the gut-wrenching misery of victims and survivors.

“They don’t bark, bite, jump up,” Hetzner told Yahoo News. “They’re trained to either sit or to lie down on the ground — it depends on the situation. A lot of times with students that are on the ground, the dog lies down on the ground, and they lie on top of the dog. They’re kind of comfort rugs with a heartbeat sometimes.”

Jacob is expected to be in Parkland until the middle of the week before returning home and awaiting the next call to duty.

Unfortunately — as politicians twiddle their thumbs and debate actually doing something, as the gun lobby digs in to ensure they won’t — there will be a next one.

And we’ll bring out the comfort dogs again.

(Top photo, Associated Press; other photos courtesy of Comfort Dogs Ministry)

Dogs help heal wounds in war-torn Uganda


Eleven years after a civil war in Uganda, many are still coping with the scars it left — inside and out — and some are finding that a dog can help them do that.

That was the case with Francis Okello Oloya, who in 2015 started The Comfort Dog Project to help people in Gulu town, especially those who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

At age 12, Okello was blinded by a bomb blast as he worked in the family garden. At a boarding school for the blind, Okello found it difficult to find the toilet at night.

“I had to navigate my way from the sleeping quarter to latrine and that was not easy,” he told the Voice of America. “And these dogs came to know that I needed help. And they began the practice of helping me from the sleeping quarters to the latrine.”

Now 29, he’s in charge of a program that matches street dogs with war’s victims, providing comfort to those victims, homes for those street mutts, and adding to a growing recognition in Uganda of what dogs are capable of.

Traditionally, dogs have mainly been used for hunting in Uganda, or for security.

The Comfort Dog Project is an offshoot of Big Fix Uganda, a nonprofit working to improve the lives of dogs and people in the impoverished and war-torn country.

As explained on the Comfort Dogs website, dogs in need of homes are rehabilitated by a team of trainers, temperament tested and spayed/neutered. They are then placed with war trauma survivors who agree to care for the dog for its lifetime and go through a week of training.

uganda2After graduating, the dog-guardian teams become project ambassadors — visiting villages and schools to
educate others about the importance of being kind to animals, teach them to use positive reinforcement training techniques and “serve as testimony of the healing power of human-dog bonds.”

In the aftermath of the civil war in Uganda, tens of thousands of people still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health practitioners estimate that seven in 10 people in Northern Uganda were traumatically affected.

Philda Akum, 35, is one of the 29 beneficiaries of the project, Voice of America reports.

In 1997, she and her four brothers were abducted by those rebelling against the government and taken to Sudan.

One brother was captured and killed, Akum says. Another brother was selected to go to the battlefront and was fatally shot. Two days later, her youngest brother contracted cholera and died.

She returned home and joined group therapy, which is what led her to be assigned a dog.

The Big Fix operates the only veterinary hospital in northern Uganda and works to achieve a sustainable population of dogs and cats and control the spread of rabies and other diseases.

(Photo: Francis Okello Oloya, founder of The Comfort Dog Project, with Binongo; Philda Akum, a former war victim, with her dog; by H. Athumani, Voice of America)

Comfort dogs arriving in Orlando

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As they did after the Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook school shootings and the Charleston church massacre, comfort dogs are headed to the scene of an American tragedy — this time, the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history.

About a dozen dogs from seven states were headed to Orlando yesterday to provide comfort and encouragement to the relatives of the dead, surviving victims, their families, first responders and a stunned community.

Forty-nine people were killed and 53 were injured when what authorities are describing as a “home grown extremist” opened fire inside the crowded Pulse nightclub with a semi-automatic weapon.

Lutheran Church Charities, which began its comfort dog program in 2008, said a dozen dogs and 20 volunteers arrived in Orlando yesterday, where they will work with local hospitals and churches.

“They help people relax and calm down,” Tim Hetzner, president of the LCC Comfort Dogs, told ABC News.

“Your blood pressure goes down when you pet a dog, you feel more comfortable, and people end up talking,” Hetzner said. “They’re good listeners, they’re non-judgmental, they’re confidential.”

The program has more than 100 dogs in 23 states.

Yesterday, many of them, along with handlers and volunteers, sprang into action.

gracieGracie, a 5-year-old golden retriever in Davenport, Iowa, who was little more than a pup when she went to the Sandy Hook shootings that killed 26 in Newtown, Connecticut, was aboard a flight to Orlando out of Chicago.

“Her purpose is to share love and compassion with those who are suffering,” Jane Marsh-Johnson, one of Gracie’s handlers, told News 10.

“The dogs do more for those suffering than human beings can do.”

Sasha, a 19-month-old golden retriever left Hilton Head Island with her handlers, Brenda and Phil Burden. It was Sasha’s first comfort mission, though the Burdens brought comfort dogs to Oregon last year after a gunman killed nine people at Umpqua Community College.

The Burdens told the Island Packet they will likely visit with the first responders who are dealing with the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in American history.

Other dogs were responding from Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Nebraska and Texas.

While in Orlando, they will be based in Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Orlando.

Travel for the dogs and volunteers is funded by donations.

(Photos: At top, a comfort dog at Sandy Hook, by Allison Joyce / New York Daily News; below, Gracie, a comfort dog from Iowa / Lutheran Church Charities)

LAX dogs provide different kind of security

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From an Irish wolfhound named Finn to a Rottweiler named Maggie Mae, 29 dogs of various breeds are providing a different kind of security for travelers at Los Angeles International Airport.

The dogs have been comforting frazzled travelers for a year now, through a program called PUP, or Pets Unstressing Passengers.

finnFinn started last November, the day after a gunman opened fire at Terminal 3 and left a Transportation Security Administration officer dead, according to the Los Angeles Times

“I think after the shooting, Finn attracted attention because he represented something comforting,” owner Brian Valente said in an airport statement. “As passengers asked questions about Finn and started to pet him, I could see their bodies relax and their demeanors change.”

The one-year anniversary of the program was marked yesterday at a meeting of the L.A. Board  of Airport Commissioners.

The dogs all wear bright red vests, and mingle with passengers in post-security-screening areas. The program is aimed at reducing the anxiety of travelers by letting them pet and play with the dogs.

The dogs are registered with Therapy Dogs, a national organization that supports pets that visit places such as hospitals, nursing homes and other special needs centers.

To see more of the dogs, click here.

(Photos: Los Angeles World Airports)