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19/07/2016, 09:45

In times of crisis, dogs help heal

No matter one’s age, race or political affiliation, at least one thing relating to recent current events is indisputable: Stress, grief and sorrow are detrimental to one’s health.

Thankfully, though — especially for those directly impacted by the tragic goings-on in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and last month in Orlando — there’s a temporary antidote for their mental and emotional anguish: so-called “comfort dogs.”

Comfort dogs like Jacob — here shown with a girl in Orlando — have been deployed around the country to help those dealing with the aftermath of an emotionally traumatic event. (Photo courtesy of Lutheran Christian Charities)

Not to be confused with “assistance/service dogs” — those that are specially trained to guide the blind, assist the disabled, signal for the hard of hearing and many other specific tasks for a single master — comfort (or “therapy”) dogs are trained to provide gentle affection and a soothing presence to anyone who needs it.

And, boy, have they been needed lately.

Thanks to the noble work of the Illinois-based Lutheran Christian Charities organization, large contingents of certified K-9 Comfort Dogs (mostly golden retrievers and Labradors) and their handlers have been flown from several states to locations nationwide.

After Hurricane Sandy.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

After the Boston Marathon bombing.

No doubt they’ll be asked to travel to Nice, France.

At every destination, clad in their distinctive blue vests with the words “Please Pet Me” printed in bold letters, LCC’s four-legged heroes spend untold hours patiently interacting with a wide array of grieving folks.

Toddlers and pre-adolescents.

First responders.

The wounded and recovering.

No matter the devastation, these sweet, affectionate animals help improve the situation.

As LCC Comfort Dogs President Tim Hetzner has explained in the past, his furry charges “help people relax and calm down. Your blood pressure goes down when you pet a dog, you feel more comfortable, and people end up talking. They’re good listeners, they’re non-judgmental, they’re confidential.”

Hetzner knows of what he speaks.

Myriad research has shown that, on a physical level, simply living with a pet helps:

  • Improve your immune system
  • Decrease your levels of cholesterol and triglyceride
  • Lower your risk of heart disease
  • Increase your life expectancy

But the main reason folks love being around dogs — especially in times of crisis — is the visceral positive feelings they create. Those hugs and belly rubs actually affect our brain chemistry. We produce more of the neuropeptide oxytocin, which not only gives us a feeling of “connectedness,” but also produces the aforementioned physical responses.

Hey, there’s a reason why there are more than 100 million American pet households.

However, becoming an LCC Comfort Dog requires more than being a beloved pet.

These canine consolers need a naturally serene disposition — one that enables them not to become distracted or fidgety when placed in unfamiliar surroundings and/or with large groups of people. In addition, the dogs must be tolerant of the often unpredictable behavior of young children. They can’t adversely react to a youngster’s screaming, crying or inadvertent roughhousing.

On a smaller — though no less important — scale, comfort dog organizations have been popping up all over the nation. For example, at Denver International Airport, its Canine Airport Therapy Squad (the counterintuitively named CATS) helps nervous and/or exhausted travelers relieve stress and anxiety. In our region, Therapy Dogs of South Florida has a wide variety of certified pooches that regularly visit hospitals, senior centers, nursing homes and other places where people could use some canine companionship.

So, be it around the corner or around the world, if you’re ever lucky enough to encounter a blue-vested pup, take him or her up on the “Please Pet Me” request — because you’ll both benefit.

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