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Smokey, a disaster relief stress dog, helps individuals cope with the emotional and physical loss they encounter in the aftermath of disasters. She has been working with patients for six years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jelani Gibson)
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Caring canine team helps with stress relief during crisis

Posted 5/1/2013   Updated 5/1/2013 Email story   Print story

    


by Airman 1st Class Jelani Gibson
82nd Training Wing Public Affairs


5/1/2013 - SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- A black Labrador comes in tongue out and eyes full of curiosity as she wags her tail back and forth in a frenzy, looking to and fro as she does so. As she walks into the office accompanied by her handler, her paws patter upon the carpet floor and she creeps up to complete strangers to be pat on the head. Ushered along and panting heavily with each breath, she finally comes into the office room and plops down onto the floor with a distinctive thump.

As a disaster stress dog, this type of interaction was routine for her, and her most recent mission had been to help those affected by the fertilizer plant disaster in West, Texas.

"When a person interacts with her by petting her, the stress level from that person is absorbed by the dog," said Lee Boedeker, an aircraft maintenance systems instructor for the 364th Training Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base.
 
Boedeker is the handler for a dog he affectionately calls Smokey. They both volunteer and are a certified dog team for Therapy Dogs International (TDI), an organization that has 24,750 dogs and 22,000 handlers.

TDI was founded in 1976 and has its headquarters in Flanders, New Jersey. TDI uses therapy dogs for a variety of mental health services including children reading programs in libraries and schools, hospitals and disaster relief.

With 48 out of 24,750 dogs being certified to specialize in disaster relief work, dogs like Smokey are a part of a very elite field. Requirements include eight hours of testing as well as FEMA approved courses, including psychological first aid.

"Disaster dog teams are tested more to cope with the psychological and physical elements of disaster situations," said Boedeker. "They have to be able to approach people unconditionally."

Many aspects of disasters are emotional, which lends a unique challenge for a therapy dog and their handler.
 
"A lot of these people are stressed out," Boedeker said. "Nobody is sure what's going to happen next."

They not only focus on victims of the disaster, but first responder personnel as well.

"Red Cross, chaplains, firefighters, command personnel and paramedics, they all know the value of what a dog can provide," said Boedeker. "They know what the dogs can do."

Boedeker counts the change that he and Smokey help cause in people's lives as one of his main motivations for what he does.
 
"Being with her puts a smile on your face," Boedeker said. "You see a change in the attitude of a person."
 
Therapy dogs like Smokey also help families with the recovery process of rebuilding their lives, whether it is the loss of a loved one or the damage to their valuable assets like a home.

"You have families that lost everything," said Boedeker. "When the dogs are present, during these moments their stress level reduces significantly."
 
Boedeker notes that when the dogs are present during these moments there is a change in their attitude.
 
"It's gratifying to see that happen," Boedeker said. "As they try to rebuild in the aftermath they have a better sense of well-being and think more clearly."

At eight years of age, Smokey is in her sixth year of work with TDI and her third year of disaster work. With deployments ranging from the Bastrop Fire in 2011, tornadoes in Texas and the blast in West, Texas, she has seen numerous disaster situations like many of her other counterparts.

Disaster stress relief dogs were also present during the 9/11 attacks and there are currently disaster dogs in Boston and Newtown, as well that are supplemented by regular therapy dogs.

"We have 100 dogs in Boston, 30 going to West Texas and 70 dogs still in Newtown ," Boedeker said. "These are all long-term commitments by handlers and their dog teams."

Boedeker counts the preparation as key to a team's success.
 
"TDI has proven that dogs can make a difference," Boedeker said. "When we deploy, we have everything we need for at least a week."

Boedeker initially got into disaster relief because he worked with someone from TDI. He had Smokey as a pup and thought she would be a good fit for the work.

"A good therapy dog gives unconditional love no matter who you are," Boedeker said. "They've got the gift of giving and all we're doing is sharing."



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