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Tag: victims

Bring in the comfort dogs — again


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.


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)

Therapy dog comforts Dr. Nassar’s victims


There’s a dog sitting outside the Michigan courtroom where 144 victims of former Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar are reading statements on how they were impacted by the sexual abuse they say he put them through.

The 2-year-old Labrador retriever’s job? To bring those victims some comfort before and after their testimony.

Preston, a therapy dog, sits in the hallway of the Ingram County Circuit Court in Lansing and makes himself available to the victims, ABC News reported.

“Having Preston here has just been a joy,” said Samantha Ursch, 29, who testified last week about abuse by Nassar in 2011 while she was a gymnast at Central Michigan University. “He is a comfort, especially for a lot of us that have pets at home,” she added. “I’m away from my two dogs so having him here has been amazing and comforting.”

nassarleashes1The statements are part of a sentencing hearing for Nassar, who has pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual misconduct in Ingham County.

Nassar, who worked at Michigan State University, faces a sentence of 40 to 125 years.

He has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison after pleading guilty to federal child pornography charges.

Preston usually has permission to sit inside Ingham County courtrooms when the prosecutor or family of victims request his presence. Usually he sits at the side of children or adults victimized by sexual abuse as they testify.

In the Nassar sentencing hearing, because the courtroom is so crowded with spectators, he is sitting in the hallway.

“This is the first time we’ve taken the approach of being in the hallway,” his handler, Ashley Vance said of the high-profile Nassar case. “It’s a really nice break for people to come out and have that comfort and support …I’ve seen people just kind of swarming him. [He offers] silent, nonjudgmental support and it’s just calming.”

aly-raismanleashes1Vance said the state’s attorney general’s office requested Preston’s presence during the hearing.

The dog works for the Small Talk Children’s Assessment Center in Lansing, where he began as a therapy dog in September 2016. He works both in courtrooms and at the children’s advocacy center, where children are interviewed by police and prosecutors after reports of abuse.

“Preston is providing a lot of unconditional love and comfort to some people who really need it right now,” said Alex Brace, executive director of Small Talk. “It’s very much about healing and providing hope to survivors of sexual assault and physical abuse.”

The statements from victims continued all day yesterday as they sometimes tearfully, sometimes angrily described the impact he had on their lives. Aly Raisman, one of the multiple Olympic gymnasts who say they were molested by Nassar, delivered her statement in court last week.

(Top photo by Chris Haxel / Lansing State Journal; photos of Nassar, Raisman by Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

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)

Fraud runs rampant in online pet sales


If you’re planning to search online to buy a new dog, be warned: Up to 80 percent of the sponsored advertising links that will show up — like that one above for instance — may be fraudulent.

So might that particular photo of a particularly cute puppy, those purebred “papers” that the seller promises to send along, that pastoral setting in which a breeder’s kennel is supposedly located. And the dog being advertised? It might not even exist at all.

The Better Business Bureau last week issued a report warning that online pet sales scams are “victimizing Americans at an alarming rate.”

A growing demand for dogs and an increase in shopping online have combined to give scammers an unprecedented opportunity to promise to sell you a dog, and leave you much poorer and petless.

The BBB advises extreme caution — and never buying a dog from a breeder without visiting that breeder. Don’t let yourself fall in love with a photo and, as with online dating, be careful of getting your heart broken.

Fake pet sales have become so common that the attorneys general of three states — Ohio, Arizona and Virginia — have issued warnings to residents in the past year, the Washington Post reported last week.

The BBB report says many of the suspected fraudulent websites offering dogs are based in the West African nation of Cameroon, and that Cameroonians residing in the U.S. are being used to collect the money from victims through Western Union and MoneyGram outlets.

Several recent cases prosecuted in the United States involve links to Cameroon, including three Pennsylvania university students accused in May of peddling nonexistent boxer puppies online.

The BBB says a high number of victims of online pet marketing schemes are in their late teens or 20s

Such schemes are usually dependent on bogus, often sophisticated, advertisements to hook unsuspecting consumers.

“In the current digital age, it is no surprise that the first step in many people’s search for a new pet begins with the internet. Alas, even the most careful online search is likely to put a consumer in contact with a potential thief. Reports show there are thousands of people around the country, and the world, who have become victims of puppy scams, and many of these typically begin with a fake web site and stolen photos, often taken from a legitimate site,” the report said.

Greedy “sellers” rarely are satisfied with collecting a deposit; most will demand additional payments until the buyer finally becomes suspicious or runs out of funds.

The scammers often hit the prospective “buyers” with additional charges before any dog is even shipped.
While avoiding any in-person meeting with a potential buyer, they ask victims to send money to a supposed third party who will take over responsibility for transporting the animal. In addition to creating phony websites to advertise the animals, the thieves will develop bogus websites that appear to be legitimate transport companies.

Those who pay for pet shipping often are asked to buy or rent a special crate for the pet and requests for special insurance or shots for the animals. At times, the thieves may claim the pet is stuck at an airport in transit and additional money is needed for food and water.

If a customer balks, the fraudsters might inform them that, unless more money is forthcoming, the potential buyer could be charged with “animal abandonment.”

In one typical case a customer named Yahong Zheng of Omaha, Neb., ordered two huskies from the website huskieshaven.com. He forked over $1,200 and was asked for additional money before realizing it might be a scam.

Kanetria Hutcherson found a teacup Yorkie on the website usa.globalfree-classified-ads.com and wired the company a $195 shipping fee to transport the animal. Soon after wiring the $195 fee through MoneyGram, Hutcherson received an email appearing to be from Delta Air Cargo, claiming the animal needed a special crate before it could be put on the plane. She wired an additional $240.

After that she was told the dog had been transported as far as Oklahoma City, and she was instructed to purchase health insurance for the dog at an additional cost of $980. Later she received another email from Delta Air Cargo that asked for another $200; one instructing her to pay $150 for food and water for the animal; and another informing her the dog neeed to be quarantined at a cost of $1,900.

Not until she called the real Delta Air Cargo was she certain she was being duped.

Delta Air Lines last week filed a lawsuit against what it called a “bogus” site that dupes people into believing it provides pet transport services on Delta jets. The site is called DeltaPetTransit.com.

By then she’d paid nearly $1,000 for a dog originally advertised as free. While the dog was said to belong to a family in Baltimore, the same photo, it turns out, was used to advertise a puppy for sale in Florida, Texas, the U.K., New York, and Hungary.

The BBB Study suggests the actual numbers of pet fraud may be even higher than reported, because many victims either choose not to file complaints or do not know where to turn for help. BBB ScamTracker contains 907 reports on this type of fraud, which represents 12.5% of all their complaints involving online purchase fraud.

The Federal Trade Commission in 2015 found 37,000 complaints involving pets, and the vast majority of those are believed to be pet sales scams.

More information about pet sales scammers can be found at the website petscams.com, which tracks scamming reports victims and lists websites that have been linked to scammers.

Deaf dog helps abused children be heard


A deaf boxer in Florida is helping abused children be heard, by helping them get through the trauma of testifying in court.

Karl, a 5-year-old therapy dog, was born deaf, but that might actually assist him in calmly and quietly performing his duties with the Orange County K-9th Circuit Program.

“He doesn’t hear all the noise,” said Karl’s owner and trainer Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse told News 13. “So he’s not going to react to yelling, banging, all the other things that can happen during a case.”

karl1Children who are testifying at a trial enter the courtroom before the jury is seated, with the dog on a leash. The dog lies at their feet, hidden from the jury’s view, while they testify.

Karl’s presence helps children summon the courage to face the microphone and speak — usually as the accused watches.

“One of the questions a child had asked me, the person who had hurt her that was in the courtroom with her, If he comes over and tries to hurt me, will Karl protect me?’

“I doubt very much that he would do anything,” Hart-Rittenhouse said. “But if that’s what made the child feel better, then absolutely, he’s going to protect you.”

“Most of them won’t testify, won’t go through a deposition, if they don’t have a dog beside them,” she added.

Karl’s owner stays in the courtroom, hearing the testimony that Karl will never hear, and Karl stays available to the children even after the court case is over.

“We’ll be there as long as the child wants Karl to stay in their life,” Hart-Rittenhouse said. “He’s helped a lot of children.”

Karl is one of six therapy dogs providing support through the non-profit Companions for Courage that works in courtrooms and hospitals.

The Ninth Circuit is the first Florida circuit to utilize both pet therapy dog teams and professionally trained handlers.

(Photos: Amanda McKenzie, News 13)

Comfort dogs arriving in Orlando


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)

Is artwork an attack on pit bulls?


Whether it’s art, propaganda, or a combination of the two, a memorial to victims of fatal dog attacks is creating controversy as one of dozens of entries in a public art display in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The work  is called “Out of the Blue,” a reference to how dog attacks — and particularly pit bull attacks, the artist repeatedly points out — usually happen.

outofblue2The display, created by a woman identifying herself as Joan Marie Kowal, consists of more than 30 decorated crosses, representing the number of people killed in dog attacks this year, and images of the victims, many of them children.

The artwork is rubbing some dog lovers, and particularly pit bull lovers, the wrong way, which has led to some demonstrations and the kind of heated, everybody’s an expert debate that follows pit bulls around wherever they go.

Joan Marie Kowal, we suspect, has more experience in badmouthing pit bulls than she does in creating art, but then again artists don’t need credentials in this competition.

Every year, for 19 days, three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids is opened up to artists in ArtPrize, a competition that awards $200,000 to the grand prize winner.

Downtown becomes “an open playing field where anyone can find a voice in the conversation about what is art and why it matters,” according to the  ArtPrize  website. “Art from around the world pops up in every inch of downtown … It’s unorthodox, highly disruptive, and undeniably intriguing to the art world and the public alike.”

This year, “Out of the Blue” has proved among the most disruptive.

A week ago, perturbed pit bull owners brought their dogs to Calder Plaza, where the entry is displayed, in hopes of presenting their views and showing that pit bulls — the breed most often mentioned in the memorial — aren’t vicious killing machines.

When they sat down in front of the memorial, Kowal complained they were obstructing the public’s view.

Kowal told MLIVE.com in an email that “visitors can’t even see the art and many have told me the bully breed owners, sitting on the ledges blocking the view of the victims’ biographies and refusing to move, makes them unable to enjoy the piece.”

Grand Rapids Police Lt. Pat Dean said Kowal filed a complaint in late September about people sitting with pit bulls on the stone wall in front of her ArtPrize entry. Police found nothing illegal at that time, he said, and members of the group, while on public property, moved at the request of officers.

Kowal describes the work as “an opportunity to Pay it Forward, and show the good side of humanity. Visitors are encouraged to express their sympathy, respect, and support for the victims and their families by leaving teddy bears, flowers, or memorial decorations in the designated heart-shaped memorial space.”

According to a brief biography listed on the ArtPrize website,  Kowal is an animal lover, who has feral cats and pet squirrels. She attended Grand Valley State University.

Not a whole lot can be learned about her through searching her name on the Internet, and there’s no mention of any previous artistic pursuits.

There was a 2011 MLIVE.com article that mentioned her name, and quoted her as being a supporter of a proposed pit bull ban in Wyoming, Michigan.

Perhaps she became an artist “out of the blue.” Perhaps her anti-pit bull passion needed an outlet.

We support the right for just about anyone to call themselves an artist, assuming they are making some form of art. We don’t have a problem with Kowal expressing herself — either vocally or through her “art” — on the streets of Grand Rapids. By the same token, we have no problem with pit bull owners and their dogs sitting down squarely in front of it, as long as it’s public property. They have the right to express themselves in public, too, whether they’re ArtPrize contestants or not.

So do we. And our opinion is Kowal is pushing her personal agenda under the guise of a non-profit organization’s art competition, and that it’s likely part of a well-plotted effort by those forces intent on painting all members of the breed with the same brush, reinforcing negative stereotypes while playing fast and loose with the facts.

Kowal says she plans to add three more crosses this weekend in remembrance of three other people who died from injuries she says were caused by pit bull attacks.

“That is not my fault that they were all killed by pit bulls,” she said. “I’m just showing the facts.”