Dogs, handlers put through their paces

First Posted: 6/14/2009

A half-dozen dog owners with their canines in tow turned out Saturday, hopeful they would qualify as a volunteer for HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response.
The organization uses dogs as a way to comfort people who have been through stressful or highly emotional events, such as a hurricane or other disaster.
People sometimes, in stressful situations, will even shut down and not talk to anyone, said Amy Rideout, HOPEs national president. But if they see an animal, theyll reach out (to pet the dog), she said. And thats the beginning of starting to reconnect…to forget about the stress for awhile.
That, she said, is what HOPE does it brings in teams of dog handlers and their pets to crisis situations, so the animals can be on hand to start building emotional bridges between service organization workers, such as Red Cross volunteers, and victims.
But, not just any dog, or handler, will do.
There is a screening evaluation process to determine which dog handler teams can learn the skills for crisis response work, said Deborah Hatherly, the Southeast Regional Director for HOPE. She, Rideout, and several other HOPE officials were in town over the weekend for such a screening at Millennium Charter Academy.
Hatherly said there were six people on hand for an evaluation of both their dogs and their own ability to control their dog, three from North Carolina and three from Virginia.
We do a lot of role-play scenarios during the screening, said Bill Hatherly. The screening process was closed to the public, and the media, but he said its simply a way to see how the dogs and their handlers respond in various situations.
We do a number of things. Sometimes you shake hands with a dogs owner and the dog will get all upset, he said, so thats one of the first things HOPE evaluators do greet the dog owner and spend time around the dog to see how the canine responds to people it does not know.
Then, Bill Hatherly said, they check the dogs grooming, handle the dog as it might be in a shelter or camp setting, all to see what sort of reaction the dog might have. Then, they line the dogs up and have volunteers role play one area woman, for instance, came in on a pair of crutches and acted as if she could not walk on her own. Another came in upset, crying, as a person at a shelter after a natural disaster might.
We just want to see what the dogs will do, how they react to different situations.
They also watch what the dog does when its owner is no where in sight, and how it reacts when food is placed out on a table, and how they act around other dogs.
If were in a shelter and someone came by with a dog, we want our dogs under control.
In the end, the work is all about finding dogs, and handlers, who can go into difficult situations and help people reduce their short-term levels of stress.
Were not therapy dogs, were comfort dogs, Bill Hatherly said.
His wife, Deborah Hatherly, said all the dog handler teams on hand Saturday passed the evaluations and now are eligible for a three-day training session which begins on July 10 in Atlanta.
After that?
We might put them to work July 13, Rideout said. Some might see service in Winston-Salem, where a summer camp is being held for children who have at least one parent deployed overseas. In some cases, the kids attending will have both parents serving in foreign lands.
There may be kids there who dont want to talk to anyone, who dont want to share, Rideout said. But once they are with a dog, they start petting…they begin to open up to other kids.
John Peters can be reached at [email protected]

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