Guest post by Dr. Risë VanFleet (please see her by-line below for information about her)
DISASTER DOGS: Dogs who work with victims in post-disaster situations and their handlers need a significant amount of training in trauma work. It can be stressful for the dogs and the people, and it’s important that the vulnerable people in the situation get the best care we can provide. The dogs need to be trained thoroughly and without the use of aversive equipment, such as prong collars or shock, and they should not be subjected to human behavior that is uncomfortable for them. Stressed dogs can become sick or cause injury in defense of themselves. On the human side, the handlers need a clear understanding of disaster and trauma victims, how to appropriately interact with them to be helpful, and how to monitor the dog-human interactions to ensure the well-being of all. Having dogs on the scene after a disaster is wonderful, but the programs they come from should know what they are doing and provide significant amounts of training.
There are two organizations that I know provide high quality preparation of dogs and handlers for post-disaster work. Neither of them self-deploy, and both work within the disaster network of helping organizations. I will post their website links below. There might be more, but there are also organizations who do not use properly trained and certified teams, and there is considerable risk involved in what they do.
It is important that you ask what training the teams have had (dog and human), as well as to watch for the use of prong collars, shock collars (that can increase stress and risk), as well as to look at videos and pictures from the organization for stress signals in dogs (such as whale eye, where the whites of the dog’s eyes show on the sides, lip licking, head turns, body turns, and a general sense of depression). Child victims need dogs who are treated properly, trained thoroughly, and who are not stressed. Disaster dogs need handlers who look out for their welfare, showing people how better to touch the dog to keep stress levels low.
The news media picks up on these types of stories frequently, and not all those who are featured are quality programs. As a psychologist who specializes in trauma, as well as a dog trainer and behaviorist, I know the huge importance of proper training and supervision of these teams. As with many post-trauma interventions, it is by far better when the helpers are from the nearby area so that their assistance can be continuous into the future. All therapy dog programs and disaster dog programs are not created equal.
Quality disaster dog programs I am familiar with:
Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response has regional offices with teams throughout the country. http://hopeaacr.org/
K-9 Disaster Relief: www.k-9disasterrelief.org
Dr. Risë VanFleet is known internationally for her fun and informative presentations and workshops, as well as for her books, articles, and dvds about the fields of play therapy, Filial Therapy, and Animal Assisted Play Therapy. Her innovative approaches and stimulating training programs are frequently hailed by participants as among the best they’ve ever attended. A Licensed Psychologist (PA), Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor, and a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, Dr. VanFleet brings 35 years of experience to her seminars, dvds, and books/articles. The quality of her work has been recognized by 8 national and international awards.