November 16, 2018

Going to the Dogs for Mass-Shooting Survivors

When the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., returned to classes a week after the mass-shooting there, social media feeds were full of photographs of “comfort dogs” that had been brought in to help the students ease back into their routines.

Providing comfort dogs to help people deal with trauma and stress has slowly been gaining traction as a much-needed service. It’s why you see them visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes, and being matched with war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Recently, I attended an event in Los Angeles hosted by the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. The Center’s Lili Goldenwein and her dog Zita, flew here from Israel to talk about the work the center does.

This was personal for me. When I lived in Israel from 1993–2004, one of my first stories as a reporter for The Jerusalem Post was to visit the village of Beit Oved, where the center is located, and interview its founder, Noach Braun. Back then, the center consisted of a bunch of travel trailers and some makeshift buildings surrounded by a few dirt roads. I was so moved by Noach’s work, a few weeks later I agreed to be a “puppy raiser” who took on a puppy for a year before returning it to be trained as a guide dog.

It’s time for us to realize that while bringing comfort dogs to schools for one day is a wonderful thing,
it’s not enough.

However, two weeks after I returned my golden retriever, Bridget, I received a call from the center telling me she had flunked out of her assessment training and asking if I would like to keep her? Of course I said yes and I raced to Beit Oved to reunite with her. That was in 1998. Bridget would become my “heart dog.” She even became a local celebrity after appearing in a Jerusalem production of “Annie.”

Then, in 2002, she became even more. That year, I was among the fortunate ones to survive an al-Qaida suicide bombing while on assignment in Mombasa, Kenya. In addition to the PTSD counseling I received, Bridget adapted to become my own comfort dog, who recognized when I needed support as I went through the long, hard struggle of clawing my way back to some semblance of humanity in the wake of that horror.

Bridget was 8 when she and I moved to Los Angeles, and she spent her remaining years soaking up the California sun until cancer claimed her at almost 14. But I never forgot the center. On my next visit to Israel, I went back to the center and, in Bridget’s name, donated money to cover the costs of raising a puppy in its program. It was wonderful to see Noach again and witness the center’s growth.

At the recent Los Angeles event, I learned that dogs that fail the center’s assessment these days are no longer returned to their raisers. Over the years, the center discovered that these dogs could be better utilized as comfort dogs for people suffering PTSD, children with autism and others in need of emotional support.

I now have my second golden retriever, Bronte, who is also my comfort dog. She knows exactly what to do when a PTSD panic attack strikes me. While proper counseling can help you learn to deal with these panic attacks, my personal experience is that they never really go away. I’m eternally grateful for my trauma counselor in Jerusalem for giving me coping mechanisms when, even now — almost 16 years after the Kenya attack — there are times I find myself triggered.

But my dogs’ power to help me heal has been immeasurable.

The surviving students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and Sandy Hook, Conn., and Virginia Tech and Columbine — and all the others who have survived similar tragedies — are traumatized. They suffer from PTSD. They will need ongoing counseling as they learn how to “live with but not relive” (as my counselor taught me) this seminal event in their lives.

It’s time for us to realize that while bringing comfort dogs to schools for one day is a wonderful thing, it’s not enough. Training dogs for those with PTSD who have survived mass shootings should now be on a par with training dogs for war veterans with PTSD.

Kelly Hartog is a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal.