Photos by Zak Depiero and Lauren Friedman
By Ranny Green
How can you pull a positive legacy out of a horrendous tragedy that took 26 innocent lives?
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings last December in Newtown, Conn., professionals’ eyes were opened as to the role of therapy dogs in aiding children and first responders in the hours and months following the carnage.
These furry counselors put a happy face on many kids for the first time in days and weeks. And they delivered a gentle emotional outlet for firemen and law-enforcement officers taking a break from the bloodbath in a nearby fire station hours after working in a setting that will leave a vivid lifetime imprint in their minds.
“The dogs became a symbol of our healing,” said Deidre Croce, a Newtown High School counselor and vice president of a foster-based rescue group called Spotty Dog Rescue. “I learned the most important lessons in my counseling career from these insightful creatures the last six months. Things you had to experience and could never learn from a text book.”
“These dogs won’t erase the memories,” said Dr. Irving Jennings, executive and medical director of Family & Children’s AID, headquartered in Danbury, Conn., “but they did provide immediate relief, which was critical.”
Jennings headed up the crisis center at Reed Intermediate School that opened the day following the shootings and remained open until April.
“Part of why it worked so well was that it was a totally volunteer effort,” he said. “There was no external authority at first making decisions about what we were doing at Reed.” This changed several months later, eventually leading to the Newtown Public School District ordering a closure of the crisis center April 10, noting that it represented too much liability for the school system.
“Although we were there at the request originally of the school system and with their permission, as time went on the school system was heavily influenced by consultants from out of state who did not support what we were doing at Reed,” Jennings explained. “The problem with a recommendation should such an event occur again is that as soon as it becomes part of an official plan, the very energy and volunteerism that made it work is subverted and replaced with outside folks who come in and run things at first before disappearing.”
Despite being piqued by outsiders’ eventual influence, Jennings lavished praise on the therapy-dog teams, noting that they were clearly the most popular element of the services offered at Reed.
After the center was closed in early April, therapy dogs remained in the building until the school year ended June 21.
Sarah Jones (pseudonym), the mother of a Sandy Hook fourth-grader, Elise, lamented the lack of therapy dogs in the school.
“Elise did not have comfort dogs in her classroom, except for one time when I was volunteering and I asked for a dog to come in. Some other classrooms had the dogs come in daily, and I really hoped that would happen for Elise but it did not. Visits with the dogs were only at the teacher’s request.
“I was very disappointed. I felt like it was a missed opportunity to help create a feeling of security in the new building after the terror of 12/14. So many kids and families had gone to Reed those first few weeks and the continuity of seeing the same dogs that were at Reed at the new school would have been wonderful. It would have made such a difference to Elise in her journey towards healing. “
Another frustrated Sandy Hook parent, Jill Kuruc, whose daughter Samantha is a third-grader, concurs. “Two days after the shooting we brought her to Reed because we knew she had to talk to someone. She didn’t want to leave home and was really shutting down but when she saw the dogs there she opened up a bit.
“As the days went on, she did not want to go to school. In fact, the dogs were one of the only way I got her to go to school. She didn’t have to explain to them how she was feeling. She didn’t have them leave her like the special helpers in the building. She didn’t feel judged. They made her feel safe when nothing else did.
“The people disappointed her and made her feel like she continually had to explain why she was feeling the way she did. The dogs just loved her and let her love them in return.”
But as time edged on several therapy dogs left the premises, leaving only a couple some days. Samantha’s class, according to Kuruc, was one of only a few that was able to interact with dogs daily.
“Heaven forbid, this happens again somewhere else,” Kuruc emphasized, “authorities need to prioritize the role of therapy dogs immediately and make certain they are not pulled too soon. That being said, parents must be proactive and speak out to the staff, letting them know of their child’s continued need for the dogs.”
When asked if she had any advice for teachers should they be confronted with a similar post-tragedy scenario in the future, Reed teacher Kirsten Strobel answered, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you don’t feel prepared to provide answers. Kids will tell you what they need – comfort, love, security, joy, the things dogs give in abundance.
“It’s sad that Sandy Hook (Elementary) was not able to incorporate the dogs as much as we did at Reed. The students wanted and needed them most but had their requests denied by administration.”
If anyone ever doubted the worth and viability of these special animals in Reed Intermediate School after the shootings, a student put it all in perspective:
“I learned that the greatest moment comes from within, not from the path in front of you. Those beautiful slobber mouths, made me realize that very important fact to know. All the dogs made me feel perfect; not just a waste of space. They brightened the mood of so many . . . They’re the reason I get out of bed each day; I realized I would be able to make a new friend that day, even if he/she isn’t a human. Haven’t you heard, a dog is man’s best friend?”
Or this one, from Carly, another Reed student:
“This year has been very confusing and difficult for everyone. The therapy dogs have really helped us to express our feelings and come to grips with ourselves. Looking at the dog’s pure, innocent face every day reminds me that there is still good, even though we can’t always see it. They don’t judge you for what they see.
“Every time I see a new dog I always claim that they are my favorite! Breeds and names I’ve never heard before open a world of possibilities. They are angels in disguise. After all, they can’t sin like we can. They make me so happy!
“We have struggled and will never forget, but we will make it through.”
Jay Smith, Reed principal and Jennings’ co-leader at the crisis center, said, “The amount of attention, the excessive demands and the daily distractions on Sandy Hook Elementary, its principal and its staff were incomprehensible.” The principal received regular, on-going guidance and was provided direct access to outside experts in the field of child traumatic stress, according to Smith.
When asked what advice he would offer school administrators elsewhere in the U.S. should another incident like this occur, Smith responded, “Get qualified therapy dogs in to the school’s crisis center as quickly as possible and keep them as long as the need is there. In the process, seek out input about their use from everyone – staff, parents and students. ”
Smith offered to put all Newtown principals in touch with representatives of therapy-dog organizations. Each, he said, made his/her own arrangement and terms according to his/her best judgment.
While the experience taught Smith that qualified therapy-dog teams need to be a top priority should a future mass school tragedy arise, he also reflected that authorities cannot allow their admittance to be buried in politics. “There needs to be a mechanism where the disaster command unit alerts qualified personnel in the local therapy-dog community that their services are needed.”
Bill Gordon, a Greenfield, Mass., police officer, who along with his wife, Laura, also a Greenfield officer, brought St. Bernards Rosie (145 pounds) and Clarence (160 pounds) to the Sandy Hook fire station within hours of the shootings for therapy purposes, reaffirmed, “Protocols, procedures and training need to be in place in pre-incident planning stages.
“First Responder agencies and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams need to recognize the effectiveness and healing capabilities of therapy dogs to their mission and embrace the assistance of local therapy-dog programs.
“Dog organizations, however, need to be cautious in self-deployment during a crisis, for poor pre-incident planning can cause too many resources to respond, resulting in chaos and in the long run waste or overwork the precious resources available.
“Local therapy-dog teams need to reach out to their local CISM teams before an incident occurs and build a working relationship and respect.”
The state of Connecticut has helped ease that process with a bill entitled, An Act Concerning Animal Therapy, that passed June 6 in the state legislature under the guidance of Sen. Dante Bartolomeo and Rep. Diana Urban. A first of its kind nationally, the measure directs the Commissioner of the Dept. of Children and Families to train animal-therapy teams and DCF social workers to work together in times of trauma for children and families.
It establishes Jan. 1, 2014 as the target date for the commissioner and the Commissioner of Agriculture to identify a coordinated volunteer canine crisis response team that shall be available to respond within 24 hours of receiving notice.
The two, who appeared at a Newtown civic ceremony June 22 thanking the therapy-dog community for its dedication and commitment after Dec. 14, acknowledged that the political support within the legislature was largely attributable to the nationwide recognition of the success of the therapy-dog teams in the Newtown schools.
Washington dogs honored
Two Western Washington dogs were recognized by the American Kennel Club last month with honorable-mention recognition in the 14th annual Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence (ACE), which commemorate five winning dogs that have made significant contributions to their communities.
Gabe, a bulldog owned by Cheryl Knapp, of Bellingham, received the honor in the Exemplary Companion Dog category, and Cranberry, a yellow Labrador retriever owned by Janine Prindle, of Enumclaw, was given a similar designation in the Service Dog classification.