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Comfort Dog Support Team Helps Montecito Mudslide First Responders, Victims

Teams from HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response travel to disasters all over the country

HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response visits community members at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden during a vigil for victims of the Montecito mudslides. Click to view larger
HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response visits community members at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden during a vigil for victims of the Montecito mudslides. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Henry, a 4-year-old golden retriever, does his work from the floor, where he sits so the people he’s visiting can give him a high five or pet his fur.

Wearing a green harness embroidered with his name and the words HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, the canine made an appearance at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden to comfort vigil attendees honoring the victims of the Montecito mudslides.

Henry and the other dogs are trained to provide comfort and encouragement through animal-assisted support to individuals affected by crises and disasters.

A group of huggable dogs were roving the Sunken Garden during the vigil, spreading smiles and helping people take a moment from the traumatic disaster that left trails of death and destruction through Montecito. 

HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, a national nonprofit, also brought six specially-trained dogs to the Incident Command base camp at Earl Warren Showgrounds to comfort crews and rescue teams working in the mud.

Volunteers with HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response​ travel with their certified canines to natural disasters and violent attacks. 

Shortly after 6:30 a.m. Monday, the showground in Santa Barbara was bustling with emergency response night shift crews arriving to get some much-needed rest.

Fire truck headlights silhouetted the four-legged dogs walking in the parking lot.

Day shift personnel were lining up for their breakfast and gathering inside the exhibit hall for a morning briefing.

HOPE AACR volunteer Jodi Smith greeted a firefighter walking to his 7 a.m. briefing, who then knelt down to pet the Australian labradoodle, Daltry, that was sitting next to Smith.

HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response and its comfort dogs attend the community vigil at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunday. Click to view larger
HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response and its comfort dogs attend the community vigil at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunday.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

“Every interaction is priceless,” Smith said. “Daltry loves this, he loves people, and he’s a better dog when he’s working. We are usually here in the morning and evening to send the crews off and welcome them back. Each day is different.”

Smith said the dogs connect individuals to their peers and counselors, in addition to reducing stress.

“The dogs are a good foot in the door,” Smith said. “Sometimes (people) won't want to talk to the counselors, but then they see the dogs and it gives leeway. When working with the counseling teams, the dogs are sort of a social lubricant.”

Smith said the animals help people cope with traumatic events.

“People don’t realize how important animals are for de-stressing until they are gone,” she said. “After a rough day, we subconsciously love animals. It gives people a time to live in the moment. It’s also a nice reminder of home for some.”

CalFire and other agencies call upon HOPE AACR teams to provide support to people affected by disasters.

“The first responders are busy diligently working and taking care of everyone, but finding time take care of themselves is difficult,” Smith said.

HOPE AACR Pacific Southwest regional director Steve Booth is Henry’s owner, and the pair has traveled to disasters all over the country.

They traveled to San Jose after last year’s catastrophic flooding, responded to the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, flew to Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and met with community members when the Thomas Fire burned in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

A HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response team visits with Hillary Blackerby of the Metropolitan Transit District at the Santa Barbara County Emergency Operations Center. Click to view larger
A HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response team visits with Hillary Blackerby of the Metropolitan Transit District at the Santa Barbara County Emergency Operations Center.  (Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management photo)

Booth has first-hand experience with crisis after working 35 years as a sergeant with the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

“I enjoy giving back to the first responders and working with survivors,” Booth said. “We are bringing comfort and compassion.”

He said HOPE AACR dogs have specialized training centered around socialization, busy places, dealing with noises, and distractions the animals might face while working in public.

“The dogs have to be comfortable,” Booth said.

The canines must be certified as therapy dogs for one year before becoming part of HOPE AACR, and then the handler and animal go through a screening process.

If the team passes, they complete a 24-hour workshop consisting of comprehensive training for essential skills needed for animal-assisted crisis response.

Booth said HOPE AACR has more than 300 dogs nationally.

“We love what we do,” Booth said.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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