Dogs comfort us in ways that defy measure. Most of us have a watershed time in our lives when we recall how an animal got us through to a better place of healing. Many years ago, I was suffering through the emotional and physical pain of a second miscarriage. Our dog, Rafferty, was a soul mate kind of animal to me. Our connection was iron clad, heightened by all of our senses or a passing look that could communicate volumes. While I lied on my bed during such an uncertain and uncomfortable time, she earned her nickname: “Nurse Betty.” Burying my head into her body as her fur literally dried my tears, she offered the surge of strength I needed to feel that some intangible and inherently good things were constant, and that hope should never be lost in the face of uncertainty.
Social therapy and crisis response dogs operate from a similar sentiment, but offer this same kind of healing benefit to strangers facing some of life’s most traumatic circumstances. Pet Partners (www.petpartners.org) is known for being a forerunner in training dogs to do social therapy work; volunteers enlist with well-mannered, even- tempered dogs to offer their assistance at schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and in other venues where the touch and understanding of a dog brings about greater well-being.
Crisis response dogs, often referred to as “Comfort Dogs” are trained at a different level. They are trained to go to the scene of the unimaginable. Many crisis response dogs were brought to Ground Zero on 911 and offered immeasurable help to surviving victims, their families. and first responders. Recently, trained comfort dogs traveled to Boston about a week after the Marathon bombing to offer their unique skills as benevolent catalysts to those still grappling with the emotional complexities of such a life- altering event.
Rescue dogs are often excellent candidates to be trained for work in social therapy or crisis response. Studies repeatedly show that interaction with dogs offers both emotional and psychological health benefits. People traumatized by a natural disaster or other challenging life experience have found blood pressure and heart rates to decrease, mood to elevate, and even in some cases, pain to subside.
In our family, and millions of others, dogs “get it” on a level that allows us to be our most vulnerable selves without threat of judgment or disappointment. Our Rafferty left a legacy of unconditional, laser sharp devotion that each of our subsequent dogs has embodied with the nickname: Nurse Betty.” They have stayed by our sides as we have grieved for the loss of loved ones, rallied through a bad flu, or struggled to understand what seemed terminally unexplainable at the time. They have been the caretakers of our souls.