Following the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, Therapy Dogs International immediately responded by sending teams of dogs and handlers trained in disaster stress relief into the Newtown, Conn., school district.
On Jan. 10, less than one month after the Sandy Hook incident, police say a Taft Union High School student carrying a shotgun entered a classroom and critically injured one student and grazed a teacher, which prompted TDI President Ursula Kempe to contact me because I am the only certified Disaster Stress Relief Dog handler in Kern County.
I was instructed to locate, evaluate and select therapy dog teams that could be sent into the school and stand by until contacted.
I spoke with Marilyn Brown, the principal of Taft Union High School, on the Saturday following the shooting and we decided to bring some of the dogs in on Monday, brief the teachers and staff on what we would do and determine the best places to use the teams when the students returned to school on Tuesday.
From the moment the dogs set paws on campus, they exceeded everyone's expectations of the impact they would have. Their innate ability to know just what to do and when, was, and continues to be, uncanny, whether clownishly performing a trick to elicit a laugh, demonstrating their proficiency on commands or patiently submitting to hugs for the gazillionth cell phone picture.
And there are no words to describe the emotion you feel when you see a dog stoically press his own body up against a student or teacher's body and lay his head on their shoulder as if to say, "It's OK now, I'm here for you." These dogs do it all.
But this work does take its toll on the dogs. Because of their sensitivity to those whose sorrow and fear they seem to absorb, we have to be careful to monitor their stress and fatigue levels.
Dog stress and fatigue? You might be thinking, "What's so hard about being petted and hugged by hundreds of people each day?"
Well, it's not that simple. These dogs know they're working. They don't sniff the ground or eliminate without permission and must maintain impeccable obedience hour after hour. They must go up and down endless flights of stairs without pulling their handlers and ride in crowded elevators with strange dogs without becoming quarrelsome.
And as far as being petted by so many people, how would you react to being rushed by groups of 20, 30 or more strangers squealing with delight, slamming locker doors and coming from all directions without warning?
In describing the impact of the TDI teams at the schools in Newtown, Conn., Jay Smith, principal of Reed Intermediate, had this to say to Ursula Kempe: "Speaking specifically about Reed Intermediate, we have had dog teams embedded here all day/every school day since the tragedy (not to mention the many other teams that have staffed our town-wide Counseling Center, also held at Reed, every night, weekend and holiday)."
He goes on to say, "The sensitivity and tact of the handlers and the gentleness and love exuded by the dogs has made an incalculable positive contribution to helping our children and adults regain their equilibrium. I've lost count of the number of parents who have told me, 'When asked about their school day, all my child wants to talk about are the dogs.'"
Various mental health professionals who are with us daily generously said that the four-legged therapists are having the more profound impact!
A more simple, if somewhat less-eloquent, description of the effect the dogs have made was offered by a young girl at Taft Union High who threw her arms around Frank's neck, looked up at me with a big smile and said, "This is my best day ever!"
-- Sherry Davis is a dog trainer/owner of CSI 4 K9s. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. These are her opinions, not necessarily The Californian's.