Therapy Dogs: An Exceptional Response to Catastrophe

Nemo (L) & CCI Facility Dog (R) Photo Credit: Terri L. Smith

Therapy Dogs at Oso: Nemo (L) & CCI Facility Dog (R)
Photo Credit: Terri L. Smith

Ocho, Nemo, & Monroe: "Dogs on Call" provide comfort at Oso disaster Photo Credit: Kathy Knox

Ocho, Nemo, & Monroe: “Dogs on Call” provide comfort at Oso disaster — Photo Credit: Kathy Knox

Two months ago, the State of Washington suffered its largest natural disaster in modern times since the 1980 volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. Ten million cubic yards of dirt and debris came crashing down on an unsuspecting bucolic community, resulting in the loss of 41 people and at least two more who are missing and presumed dead.

The number killed, however horrifying, doesn’t begin to account for the loss among the people who lived in this area, many of whom barely survived the disaster, and all of whom lost some, most, or all of their homes and everything within and without them, including their pets and livestock.

The story might have been eclipsed by the seemingly endless rounds of nature’s newest explosive tangent (California wildfires; tornadoes in the South and Midwest; sudden blizzards and floods in the Northeast), except for the fact that several unusual reactions have captured and sustained world-wide interest.

First and foremost is the fact that a wide network of community services rushed to aid the victims, all working in apparently seamless cooperation, devoid of conflict or political alliance.  Second, the President came to see the damage for himself.  And, as he had done in Sandy Hook with the bereaved parents and grandparents of the children lost to that tragedy, he met privately with residents and family members of those lost in the Oso slide. While one might demur the importance of a presidential visit, it kept the focus on this small, resilient community so that rescue work could continue with assurances that federal support would not be withheld.

Children from the Oso mudslide find comfort in reading with "Dogs On Call" -- Photo Credit: Kathy Knox

Children from the Oso mudslide find comfort at the Darrington school library, reading with “Dogs On Call” — Photo Credit: Kathy Knox

The sister community of Oso, a charming town called Darrington, was totally torn apart as well, but its fate has been less reported. There was another aspect during this calamitous time that was also less reported, but to those who received it, no less important: Dogs.  Initially, there were tracking dogs, to search for those who might be buried in debris; then, sadly, came the cadaver dogs; and, finally, slipped inside the barriers almost without notice, were the certified therapy dogs.

If one remembers the chaos of 911 (and who, among us, can not), we might also recall how many of the survivors and family members spoke with tears of gratitude about a therapy dog, which came and nudged them, nestled up to them, licked their tears and comforted them in their sorrow. These words, as I write them, sound like romanticized gibberish, if it were not for the fact that in the months and years since that time, so many people still talk of the dogs that saved them.  By “saved” they did not mean leading them through the fires, smoke and disintegrating debris the way guide dog Roselle lead her blind partner, Michael Hingson–they meant in the equally profound but no less important sense of helping them through the mental anguish of the tragedy.

Therapy Dogs & Handlers at the Darrington high school library. Photo Credit: Terri L. Smith

Quietly, and just as surely as they have in other tragedies, volunteers with certified “therapy dogs,” took time out of their own lives to help others retrieve what was left of theirs. Some of the dogs came through Therapy Dogs, Incorporated (, an organization with more than 12,000 volunteer handler/dog teams. Others arrived through Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) and its complementary, local group, Dogs On Call (

For dogs, with their highly developed sense of smell, the odor of destruction must have been unlike anything they had experienced until then.  It was, said one newscaster who had gone to the scene, “beyond the unimaginable sights because all of it was coupled with an horrendous smell of decay.” Seventy feet of mud, with the putrefying smell of rotten vegetation and sewage, covered an area about 2 miles wide. Added to this was the odor from diesel fuel, which ran the lights, water pumps, and radios.  Then, add again, the chaos, albeit contained as much as possible by the exceptional skills of those helping in every area of response, along with terrified friends and family members who rushed to the scene to help.  Yet, through it all, patiently, kindly, quietly yet surely, came the therapy dog teams.

The dogs moved among rescue workers as well as the residents. An exhausted fireman sat down and rested his head on the back of one of the therapy dogs. The Seattle Times (Sunday, May 18, 2014) reported:

Some searchers have time with the dogs as they struggle to cope with what they find at the mudslide site. The stress lines on their faces ease just a bit and they smile briefly.

They “say thank you, we appreciate it, and go back out,” said Nathan Ray, of the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology and a member of a crisis-response team.

Still, there is no denying that, for the residents of Oso and surrounding areas, among the most important moments were the times the dogs comforted the residents who had lost so much, including family members, friends, and lest it be forgotten, their own beloved pets.

As one little boy said, while hugging one of the dogs: “He can’t replace Max [his yellow Labrador], but he sure knows how I feel and that helps. It helps a lot.”

Today, is May 18th — the same date Mount St. Helens erupted. When I was thinking over what to write this week, I wavered between posting a recent scientific investigation versus some humorous anecdotes. Then, suddenly I felt the emphatic need to write about the Oso/Darrington disaster. I hadn’t registered the fact of these coincidental dates. Just as I finished the last line above, about the little boy who’d lost his dog,  I heard a newscaster mention the Mt. St. Helens date on television.  It gives one pause . . .


For more about working dogs at Oso:

Dogs Bring Cheer to Darrington schools [The Herald]

Oso disaster pushes dogs and handlers to the limit []

Search dogs working hard at Oso site. [King5 News]

Rescue dogs overwhelmed by scale of mudslide search at Oso.   []

Rescue dogs tested by Washington mudslide recovery.  [National Geographic]



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6 Responses to Therapy Dogs: An Exceptional Response to Catastrophe

  1. Marie Grime May 21, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    I’m not religious, but I often say that dogs are God’s most remarkable creatures. What a terrible yet wonderful story.

  2. Kathleen Kaska May 21, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. These dogs are exceptional! What a heartwarming story.

  3. Norman W Wilson, PhD May 21, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

    What a wonderful story, Patricia. Thank you for recognizing another group that went to help those unfortunate folks.

  4. Bill Thorn May 21, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    Because of the implications, I hesitate to call these dogs “animals”. As a crisis unfolds, they’re companions that bring comfort, compassion, awareness that the world hasn’t ended and the hope that comes with “this too shall pass”. They and their handlers are selfless, true first responders as deserving of our respect as their human counterparts. I wonder what emotional burdens they carry away from such scenes??


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    It’s difficult to find well-informed people on this topic,
    however, you sound like you know what you’re talking about!

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