As soon as the news of the Las Vegas shootings broke, Golden Retriever therapy dogs from Lutheran Church Charities, accompanied by their handlers, set off for Nevada to bring comfort to the victims, their families and the stressed-out first responders. Let’s find out how healing powers of animals work.


Paws on the ground
The mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas on 1st October 2017 shook not only the USA but also the world. Fifty eight concert-goers died in the attack and more than 500 people were injured. With horror on that scale, how can you comfort the injured and bereaved? Words are inadequate; often sounding hollow and inappropriate. But there’s another source of emotional healing in the wake of major disasters but also to comfort the sick, the depressed, the lonely, the physically challenged, the frightened and the stressed.

Speaking to the press, Tim Hetzner, president and CEO of Lutheran Church Charities and founder of the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministries explained the healing power of his animals. “The great thing about the dogs, they’re unconditional, confidential and safe, he said. “Dogs have an incredible sense of when somebody is hurting,” he added. “They’ll just come and lay themselves into somebody’s lap.”

When children have been badly hurt or shocked they often confide in the dogs in a way they will not express themselves to adults. The dogs are perfect listeners and they don’t judge or talk back.

Hetzner started the organisation in August 2008 with four dogs. It now has more than 130 dogs in 23 states that have put paws on the ground in response to tragedies such as Sandy Hook, Orlando, the Dallas shootings and disaster response for Hurricane Harvey.

The comfort teams only go where they are invited and the protocol is that the handlers always let people approach the dog rather than the other way around, in case anyone is afraid of or allergic to animals.

The primary role of the handlers is to make sure the dogs don’t get burned out. This means giving them time out for a game or a sleep after two-hour work.

Why dogs are such good therapists?
The beneficial effect of interaction with dogs has been proven scientifically. The main explanations seem to be: physical effects through hormones, the friendliness of the therapy dogs and their ability to show empathy.

Feel-good factors: Studies have demonstrated that simply stroking a dog can reduce levels of stress hormones, regulate breathing and lower blood pressure. It seems that petting a dog releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection, not only in the human, but in the dog too.

Friendliness: Brian Hare, director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, says part of what makes dogs special is that, unlike most other animals, they do not show fear of strangers. In fact he says, many dogs actually love strangers, and in that way are more welcoming than people. And a dog’s love is unconditional which makes it that much more powerful.

Empathy: Psychologist Debbie Custance of Goldsmiths College, University of London, has studied the ability of dogs to detect distress in humans. She asked human volunteers to either pretend to cry, or just ‘hum in a weird way’ in order to find out whether dogs could tell the difference?

Debbie and the volunteers were astonished at the results. The dogs paid little attention to the people who were just humming, but nearly all of them came over to nuzzle the crying person, whether it was their pet patent or a stranger.

In an interview with National Geographic, Debbie admitted that her results were not conclusive evidence that dogs have empathy but said that it shows how people could well feel that dogs were sensitive to unhappiness.

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)
The beneficial effect of interacting with animals is increasingly being recognised and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is growing in popularity. While dogs are the most widely used therapists, other animals such as dolphins and horses are also effective in certain situations. According to the UK’s Daily Mail, skunks are sometimes used to calm schizophrenia patients in Britain, snakes are helping those with bipolar disorder and chinchillas are prompting memories in people with dementia.


In Europe and the US, therapy dogs make visits to prisons, comfort traumatised war veterans, visit the sick and bring down stress levels in corporate offices.

Now dogs are finding their way into all kinds of places in India. In Asia’s first Airport Comfort Dogs Programme, which ran from September 2015 to May 2017, three dogs – Pepe, Sunshine and Pearl – were stationed at Terminal 2 of the Mumbai airport at weekends to welcome passengers.

Clinical psychologist, Minal Kavishwar, founder of Animal Angels Foundation, an NGO involved in the project, said there was a tremendous response from passengers. People who were stressed because they were stranded or lonely or missing their families, found the presence of a therapy dog soothing.

In an interview with The Hindu, Kavishwar explained that, while AAT can be used in various settings, it is most effective when combined with other therapies or treatment. “This is precisely the reason why it has to be practiced by trained mental health professionals,” she says. Kavishwar told the paper that AAT involves strict protocols. “For an animal-assisted intervention to be called ‘therapy’, certain criteria have to be fulfilled”, she said. “The psychologist has to document goals and achievements using standardised scales. The documented progress is used to form empirical evidence to support the effect of AAT.”

Furry counsellors
Mentally or physically challenged children benefit greatly from AAT. Psychologists say that the kids participate much more readily in therapy sessions when there is a dog in the room. Children with physical disabilities really make an effort to move if there is a dog to be walked or groomed; others show emotional and social growth after regular interactions with one of the counsellors with fur.

Visiting the sick
In hospitals, strict rules have to be in place to ensure that the four-legged therapists do not carry any infection into the wards. But, after initial resistance, therapy dogs are now at work in India. International standards of hygiene are followed, especially in places such as cancer wards.

(Sonya Kochhar Apicella is founder/president, Canine Elite/Indian Canine Upliftment Centre (ICUC). Canine Elite is a premium dog boarding establishment and cattery in Delhi, which offers pets and pet parents superb facilities such as daycare for dogs, advanced dog training, dog agility training, puppy training and vet service. ICUC is a registered animal welfare organisation dedicated to the care of the homeless, abandoned, and rescued dogs and cats across Delhi and NCR).

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