Teams of comfort dogs are headed to Moore, Okla., to soothe victims and help them recover.
At tragedies like this week's deadly tornado in Moore, Okla., and last month's bombings in Boston, the firemen, teachers, police officers, EMT's and other first responders who rush to the scene to assist the wounded are the true heroes.
But who comes after them to ease the victims' plight?
In recent cases, the second responders have been a bit fluffier than the first responders, and they've been known to like treats and tennis balls a bit more. They're teams of what have become known as "comfort dogs," canines sent by relief organizations to quell the burden of tragedy and soothe victims' suffering.
"They bring comfort to people in the situations that life throws at you," said Lutheran Church Charities President Tim Hetzner, whose team deployed its legion of golden retrievers to tragedy-stricken Moore this week, in addition to past deployments in bereaved communities like Newtown, Conn., Joplin, Mo., and areas hit by Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey.
"Dogs listen, are confidential and show unconditional love," he said. "They're big, furry counselors who give advice and tell humans to bark less and be better listeners."
"They're tools in a crisis for a human counselor."
LCC was founded in 1947 to bring compassion and relief to those in need, and began doing so with canines in 2008 following a shooting at Northern Illinois University that killed six people. It identifies and screens its dogs when they're five to eight weeks old and trains them as service animals, though they function more in a comfort-giving role. When the dogs show they can respond to multiple handlers, LCC gives them more case-specific training depending on the environment where they'll be deployed, whether it's a nursing home, church, college campus or a hospital.
Today LCC has 60 dogs in seven states — all golden retrievers. It's a good-natured, commonly accepted breed that behaves well in inside and outside environments, Hetzner said.
Scientifically, studies show that oxytocin — a hormone with a heavy role in bonding, especially between mothers and their babies — is released when people are around dogs, lowering human stress levels and heart rates.
According to a 2005 study by Kathie Cole, a registered nurse at the University of California-Los Angeles, patients visited by a human with a trained dog experienced a 24 percent drop in their anxiety levels, while those who saw no visitor — animal or human — maintained the same stress rate.
In the study, patients who were met by a human and a trained dog showed a 17 percent decrease in their epinephrine numbers -- a hormone secretion that increase stress in humans. For those who weren’t visited, epinephrine levels increased by nearly seven percent.
Cole began her studies in 1994 by placing a fish in the hospital she was working at. She observed that patients felt comfortable around the animal and decided to observe the relationship between humans and dogs in a hospital setting. Today, Cole's efforts have blossomed into UCLA's People Animal Connection Program, which has sent canines and their handlers on more than 100,000 patient visits since 1994.
UCLA PAC has 70 dogs in its stable, not all of which are golden retrievers. They also have Labrador retrievers, teacup poodles, Chihuahuas and their largest dog, a leonberger, which program director Erin Rice said looks like a big bear. Between 15 and 20 of the program's dogs are rescued.
UCLA PAC teams up with Pet Partners to register the dogs and enroll them in workshops, where they're tested in hospital settings. Dogs with calm dispositions who engage humans and don’t react adversely to crowds or noises are picked out and selected for the program.
"Dogs provide a different type of communication," said Rice. "Patients don’t always have to talk. They can just pet the dogs and find momentary escape."