These dogs are specially trained to enter chaotic environments.

By Monica Weymouth
October 01, 2018
group petting dog
Credit: Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek/GettyImages

"Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them and filling an emptiness we didn't ever know we had," wrote America short-story author Thom Jones.

This is certainly true of Lena. While making her rounds at a Philadelphia-area nursing home with her owner, Sharon Schermerhorn, another volunteer noticed that the black Lab had a special way with people. Even for a therapy dog, she was exceptionally gentle and confident, seemingly anticipating the needs of residents.

Had Schermerhorn ever considered, her fellow volunteer asked, training Lena to be a crisis-response dog?

"I had never even heard of a crisis-response dog," says Schermerhorn. "But the more I learned about them, the more I knew that Lena could help so many people. It's been a huge part of our lives ever since."

Crisis-response dogs are highly skilled canines that are deployed to natural disasters, mass shootings, accident scenes, fires, and other emergency situations. Unlike therapy or comfort dogs, they're specially trained and certified to enter chaotic environments and assist survivors and first responders experiencing a range of emotions.

"Many times the dogs are encountering people on the worst day of their lives," says Schermerhorn. "They're working with victims as well as alongside first responders whose lives are at risk. These can be very stressful situations, so these are very special animals."

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boy petting dog
Credit: Gary S Chapman/GettyImages

Lena and Schermerhorn are one of many volunteer teams working with National Crisis Response Canines, a nonprofit that assists police departments, the Red Cross, FEMA, and other relief agencies. While the group doesn't comment on individual deployments out of respect for the victims, its nationwide network of handlers assures that there's almost always a dog on the scene when requested. "If it makes the news, we're likely there," says Schermerhorn of National's assignments.

While Lena is a volunteer, some dogs have made a career of crisis-response work. In 2016, the FBI introduced Wally and Giovanni, two Labrador retrievers appointed to the agency's Crisis Response Canine Program. After the mass shooting at an office in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, the dogs were on the scene assisting special agents in attending to survivors and families.

Although dogs can't provide medical care or take statements, they're uniquely skilled at communicating with humans during traumatic situations. Numerous studies have shown that interacting with dogs can significantly lower stress, anxiety, and cortisol levels; a new study suggests that dogs don't simply recognize signs of human distress, but they want to help, as well.

There's much work to be done after Lena sits by the side of a victim and offers a furry shoulder to lean on. But once she's able to break through, her human counterparts can begin to connect that person with services and care.

"Once someone starts petting a dog, they're able to relax a little and talk about what they need," says Schermerhorn. "Maybe that's a bottle of water or information about where to find shelter. It's just a start, but they're able to look into the future, even if it's just minutes into the future, and realize that their life will continue."

Who's a good girl? Lena is.

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