Dogs provide vital stress relief for survivors and first responders

MARYSVILLE — When Braeden Boyle spotted his new friend the other day, his expression brightened.

The lanky freshman bent down and hugged him.

They’d spend the next half hour together, walking along the south fence line of Marysville Pilchuck High School where students, staff and volunteers were taking down weathered tributes to classmates shot in the cafeteria Oct. 24.

Like a lot of students, the tragedy hit Braeden hard.

Bungee, a 3-year-old English Labrador, could sense that and became his companion.

“You watch him change when he is around that dog,” said Gregg Kuehn, the district’s human resources supervisor who watched their reunion Monday.

Another 21 dogs trained in crisis response fanned out across the Marysville School District in the days after the shooting. Their job is to help survivors and emergency responders relieve stress. They’re what’s known as comfort dogs.

Kuehn didn’t know what to think when the dogs were made a part of the district’s response strategy. They came recommended by Mary Schoenfeldt, a local expert on school emergency management who has been working with the district.

Gia Soriano, Zoe Galasso and Shaylee Chuckulnaskit, all 14, and Andrew Fryberg, 15, died of gunshot wounds. So did the shooter, Jaylen Fryberg, 15. Fellow freshman Nate Hatch, 14, was shot in the jaw and is recovering.

Within two hours of the first reports of gunfire, Schoenfeldt exchanged texts with Raquel Lackey, a certified comfort dog handler, asking her to head north toward Marysville. How fast can you get there, she asked.

“It was just a given to me that they would be such a valuable asset,” Schoenfeldt said. “They are powerful bridges is what they are.”

Kuehn became a quick convert to their value, seeing how they open up communication.

He has watched the dogs enter rooms and gravitate to whomever needs them most.

“If you are there, you can see and feel it,” Kuehn said. “You can see the change. It has been amazing to watch the kids and even the adults.”

Schoenfeldt said she has witnessed firsthand their worth as communities deal with crisis.

She recalled having breakfast at a diner in Connecticut three weeks after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown two years ago. A man was there with his 7-year-old son when she walked by with a group that included a comfort dog.

The father stopped by their table to explain that his son lost friends in the rampage. He wondered if his son could pet the dog.

“This little boy got animated and his eyes lit up,” Schoenfeldt said. “His dad told us it was the first emotion” he’d expressed since the shootings.

On the first two days after Marysville Pilchuck reopened, there were 15 teams of dogs and their handlers on the campus.

“I was humbled to be asked to have so many dog teams there,” said Lackey, a dog handler with HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, a volunteer nonprofit organization.

Similar teams have helped in the aftermath of other 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 federal building in Oklahoma City.

Lackey, a retired CPA, has been a frequent presence in Marysville since the day of the tragedy. She has two dogs trained and certified to work in crisis response. She rotates their visits. When one works, the other stays home. She doesn’t want to overtax them.

“It’s all about the human-animal bond and we want to make sure the animal is just as happy as the human,” she said.

“As they are soaking in people’s grief, it’s my job to figure out how they release that energy,” she said.

For Bungee, that might mean an off-leash hike in the woods. For Pickles, a 3-year-old black English Lab, that’s typically chasing a tennis ball or a swim. Both are given extra rest.

Lackey coordinated 45 comfort dog crisis response teams that were first deployed to Snohomish County after the Oso mudslide that killed 43 people in March. Bungee and Pickles spent more than 200 hours helping out with the slide, greeting workers returning from the debris fields or hanging out at the emergency operation centers. Sometimes, they were side by side with chaplains helping families.

In Marysville, school officials realized that the dogs could provide long-term help.

The day of the shootings, there were some Grove Elementary School students with behavioral challenges on the MPHS campus.

They had earned a visit to the district’s swimming pool, and experienced the chaos and trauma of the lockdown and armed police escort to safety.

The comfort dogs have paid a visit to their classroom since then, with promising results, Kuehn said. They have a calming effect.

The district would like to bring them back to help the students on a more regular basis. It is also looking into integrating them into a program for students with autism at Kellogg Marsh Elementary.

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

Learn more

Find more information about HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response and ways to help the organization, go to www.hopeaacr.org.

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