Some Victims Prefer Canine Counselors

By<a href="">Barry Serafin</a>

Nov. 21, 2001 -- Not far from New York's "Ground Zero," the Red Cross continues to help those who have lost loved ones, jobs and homes.

Volunteers from around the country staff the Red Cross service centers where those in need can find grief counseling and financial help for food or rent.

But some of the most effective help comes from counselors who never say a word. For the past two months, dozens of specially trained therapy dogs have been bringing comfort to victims and stressed-out volunteers.

Everywhere the dogs go, they produce smiles among people who haven't had much to smile about. A little girl, hesitant at first, soon hugs a small spaniel. A man who would not — or could not — talk about his troubles opens up after a few minutes with a therapy dog.

"It's almost like magic," says Red Cross counselor Linda Nebbe. "People relax. They start to smile. They start to laugh and talk."

"I've seen children able to sleep for the first time," says Elizabeth Teal, the owner of a therapy dog.

Some victims are actually more responsive to the therapy dogs than to human counselors.

Fighting back tears, Joanne Duffy says she lost her business, a gift shop, and, more importantly, she lost friends in the Sept. 11 attack on New York. But she is able to smile as she pets two golden retrievers. With people, she says, you have to talk about your feelings, but a dog "knows how you're feeling."

New Role as Comforter

Therapy dogs come in all sizes, all breeds. Some have long pedigrees, others are mutts. But all of them require special training and certification. Along with basic obedience training, they must be taught to accept strangers, strange surroundings and unusual noises.

A large and growing body of evidence shows that dogs and other therapy animals can lower blood pressure, anxiety and distress. They have frequently been used in hospitals, nursing homes, even mental institutions.

But the experience in New York appears to have opened up a whole new role for them — comforting those traumatized by disaster. The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is coordinating the dog therapy program in New York.

ASPCA counselor Stephanie LaFarge says, "in a crisis, in a disaster, what you want most of all is a quick, effective, targeted intervention, and the dogs definitely do that."

New Yorker Mindy Foreman discovered the healing power of dogs first-hand. Her personal loss from Sept. 11, she says, is still too painful to talk about. But she talks readily about her encounter with a therapy dog named Tenor.

She met Tenor, a golden retriever, near Ground Zero. She was "grieving," she says, "traumatized." Tenor quietly sat next to her and nuzzled her.

When she recently had the opportunity for a brief reunion, Foreman stroked the therapy dog and simply whispered, "thank you."

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