Canine Comfort

A dog and handler taking part in a recent HOPE Animal Assisted Crisis Response training is put through security at Sawyer International Airport.

Story by Trinity Carey

Photos courtesy of Nicholas Meier

HOPE Animal Assisted Crisis Response, a national nonprofit organization, recently opened a Midwest Region Division and held a three-day training workshop in Marquette to certify teams of handlers and crisis response dogs for deployment throughout the Upper Peninsula.

After receiving a donation from the Superior Health Foundation, a health-centered, nonprofit organization, the 10 dog/handler teams gathered October 27 through 29 for an intensive training workshop at the Marquette City Fire Department.

“Our mission is to provide comfort and encouragement through animal assisted support to individuals affected by crisis and disasters, so we do a wide range of crisis response around the country,” said Nicholas Meier, regional director for the Midwest region of HOPE Animal Assisted Crisis Response.

Meier, a handler and crisis response dog owner himself, applied on behalf of HOPE AACR for one of the donations given to nonprofits at the Superior Health Foundation’s annual gala. The organization was awarded $10,000, which allowed them to establish a Midwest division of HOPE in September, and begin to certify the rising number of handler/dog teams in the region.

Teams that attended the Marquette workshop were trained in all phases of crisis and disaster response such as psychological first aid, working with state and federal agencies such as local schools, FEMA and the Red Cross. The teams were also exposed to a wide variety of situations they may encounter when responding to a crisis.

“One of the things we did at the Marquette City Fire Department is the fire department personnel fired up the pumpers, and blew the sirens, and got into Scott air-paks, and exposed the dogs to all those stimuli just to get them desensitized to the kind of situations they might have to respond to,” Meier said.

The teams then traveled to the Sawyer International Airport to undergo training with the Transportation Security Association personnel. The dogs were put through a security screening to be prepared to fly in an aircraft with their handlers upon deployment.

Crisis response teams respond to all levels of crisis including wildfires, shootings, deaths at schools and national disaster sites such as Ground Zero.

“The crisis response that we do can be very, very small crisis or major natural disasters—anywhere that a comfort dog can be of value,” Meier said. “Unfortunately the last nine callouts that we have been doing in the U.P. have been deaths at schools.”

In cases such as school deaths, the HOPE teams job is to assist and meet with the existing crisis teams, such as counselors, and work with them to provide support to students, Meier said.

A trained animal crisis response dog offers comfort.

“One of the biggest problems we have in HOPE is people don’t know about us and they don’t know what we do. A lot of people, if they know about HOPE, sometimes they think that we’re going to come in and take over and push everybody aside, which couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Meier said. “So one of the things I’m doing as the Midwest regional director is educating the public as to our mission and to what our role is in a disaster or crisis. We come in and we work with the team.”

Upon arrival, the dog’s job is to do what they do best and “just be a dog,” Meier explained. Their role is to let those affected pet and cuddle with them to provide a form of emotional support in times of need.

“Sometimes the dogs will almost facilitate the emotional healing of the person. Our most recent school death, the kids would come in and they sit with the dogs and that oftentimes would let them open up and talk with other people and express their feelings and then perhaps talk to a counselor,” Meier added. “Sometimes you just don’t want to talk to a counselor, you just want to decompress with a dog.”

Many owners with dogs and therapy dogs may think their dog is ready to respond in crisis situations, but crisis dogs must be properly trained to work with other first responders and in high-stress situations, Meier said.

“Just because you have a dog doesn’t necessarily mean you can respond, because you haven’t had the type of training necessary to do crisis response,” he said. “There is a very strict national standard for training and deployment of crisis response dogs and HOPE right now is the only organization that meets those national standards.”

To become certified, dogs must first be therapy dogs and participate in 12 therapy sessions before applying for crisis training. A dog may respond well to therapy work such as visiting nursing homes and hospitals, but it may not perform the same during crisis work.

“Therapy work is not stressful. It’s predictable, it’s low profile. Crisis response work is very unpredictable, all sorts of different response methods, responses can last for days for example, therapy only lasts for a couple hours,” Meier said.

HOPE handlers too have certain expectations to uphold.

A dog checks out a City of Marquette Fire Department firefighter as part of HOPE Animal Assisted Crisis Response training.

“Another thing that our organization requires that a lot of organizations don’t, is that all of our volunteers have an ongoing criminal background investigation. Every month all of our members are screened for felony convictions and sex offender registry placement.”

There is a three-step process for HOPE certification. First, applicants participate in a three-hour online orientation which discusses HOPE and its mission, which helps those interested decide if crisis work is for them. Then the organization begins a screening process with the handler and canine. The screening includes an interview with the handler to discuss their motivations, an obedience test for the dog and exposure to a mock disaster scene. If the dog and handler respond appropriately they are then invited to a three-day workshop.

HOPE screened 15 applicants for the Marquette training workshop. Those accepted traveled from Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and from throughout the U.P. to attend the first Midwest division workshop.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to go into situations where people are under an incredible amount of emotional distress and bring in your dog and just see the impact these dogs have on these people that are affected by crisis and disasters,” Meier said.

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