Comfort dogs help Oso slide survivors and responders

OSO — From high atop a ridge on the southern lip of the debris field, Pongo waited patiently.

It would be hard to pass the friendly and reserved black Labrador retriever without giving him a good pat. His big brown eyes, floppy ears and shiny coat silently greeted exhausted workers spending their days rummaging through the rubble for lives lost in the March 22 Oso mudslide.

Pongo and his handler, Chris Monroe, were specially trained for these moments of crisis. Pongo’s job was not to search for the dead, but to help survivors and emergency responders relieve some stress.

He’s what’s known as a comfort dog.

“I love it,” said Steve Tonkin, a Sultan firefighter who stopped to pet Pongo that sunny afternoon in early April. “It’s a great idea.”

Monroe and Pongo are Animal Assisted Crisis Response volunteers. The national organization with local ties is called into natural disasters and other tragedies across the country. More than a dozen teams have spent time in and around Arlington, Oso and Darrington since the mudslide, which has claimed more than three dozen lives.

Similar teams have helped in the aftermath of school shootings, hurricanes and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Each time they are brought in at the behest of a larger organization, such as the American Red Cross, law enforcement or government relief agencies.

At Oso, they were invited by the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, which is often summoned to help in emergencies and disasters to provide crisis assistance and counseling. The organization got its start after the April 1995 bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

The dogs are seen as a tool to connect people back to their peers.

“It just opens up communication,” Monroe said.

There are two sister organizations: the National Animal Assisted Crisis Response and the HOPE Animal Assisted Crisis Response. Both have been active in the slide response.

“We can be deployed anywhere any time,” said Melanie Dunbar, a HOPE handler from Erie, Penn., who along with her dog, Gus, was on hand after deadly Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast in 2012.

“The dogs communicate on a level that doesn’t need words,” Dunbar said. “That’s what’s so powerful. Sometimes you don’t need words.”

The dogs are remarkably astute at recognizing who needs their company and who needs their space, said Kristin Terpstra, a National Animal Assisted Crisis Response volunteer who spent two days in late March with her 10-year-old yellow lab, Arabelle, at the Oso Fire Station and near the western edge of the debris fields.

“I let her lead me,” said Terpstra, who also is a volunteer with Snohomish County Search &Rescue.

Terpstra said Arabelle and other dogs act as a bridge, reminding people of happy memories that can begin a conversation.

“Any conversation brings a person closer to working through any feelings they might be having,” she said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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