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Comfort amid the chaos Canine therapy dogs offer unique solace

Worn out from the grief of losing a relative on Flight 3407, the woman found refuge in her hotel bed only to realize it was not enough.

She'd heard that some special therapists had been brought in and requested that they come to her room.

In a matter of minutes, a dog was lying beside her and another was standing at her bedside.

Canine therapy had begun.

Merlot, a black Labrador retriever, lay beside the woman and waited for a sign to engage.

"It was immediate. She reached over and petted the dog and hugged it," said Tara Hughes, the lead Red Cross mental health volunteer at the Family Assistance Center for relatives of the deceased crash victims.

Hughes had previously seen the canine therapy dogs in action at other far less tragic settings, but never before like this.

"To know this woman was truly grieving and sense what she needed, my first thought was emotional support doesn't have to come from a person and this support for that woman was far beyond any thing another person could do for her," Hughes said.

Seven of the 10 volunteer canine therapy teams in Western New York have been working at several sites since the Continental Connection plane crashed into the Wielinski family's Clarence Center home Feb. 12, killing 50 people.

Relatives of the deceased, emergency responders, those working at the Erie County morgue and other public health employees have all spent time with the dogs, receiving comfort for a tragedy the founders of the canine therapy team hoped would never happen here -- a large-scale plane crash.

But the dogs and their handlers were ready.

On one of the particularly difficult days, last Monday when approximately 100 family members were transported to the Long Street crash site, the Red Cross requested three dogs be on hand at the assistance center when the families returned.

"The experience with the families was just incredible. They were drawn to the dogs like magnets. It was mostly that they wanted to touch and hug the dogs," said Marilynn Kregal, whose Alaskan Malamute named Kina is part of the team.

Kim Griswold, who co-founded the team with Kregal, said the relatives were mostly silent as they interacted with the dogs. "They'd kneel beside them or sit on the ground and be with the dogs," she said.

What amazed the mental health officials at the assistance center was that the dogs themselves intrinsically knew who was in the most need of their companionship.

"They seem to really be able to sense who needs them and they will find that person," Hughes said. "If the person responds, great. If the person doesn't, they move away. They do their job beautifully."

Not just any dog can do this work, according to Griswold, who is Merlot's owner.

They must have temperaments that are unfazed by extremely loud noises, crowds and someone running up and unexpectedly grabbing them.

The dogs, who can be pure breeds or mixed, are further screened for "therapy aptitude" by one of several nationally accredited organizations specializing in canine behavior. Kregal said that is intended to weed out dogs unable to cope with intense stress.

Basic training for the dogs includes learning several commands that include sitting quietly beside an individual, lying down with head upon paws, sitting and not jumping up on people -- all behaviors that basically promote a sense of calm.

One of the big concerns after Flight 3407 crashed was whether the dogs would be able to withstand working in a tense atmosphere.

Until now, local canine therapy dogs have been making their rounds in frequently calm settings, such as nursing homes, hospice centers, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and the Veterans Administration mental health clinic in North Buffalo.

Eric Kancar has served as the team's monitor to make sure dogs received rest periods in hectic times over the last week. He said there was some concern whether the animals would be able to handle large numbers of people.

"It's typically not a hive of activity. So we didn't know how the dogs would react, and they did great," Kancar said. "It was like another day at the office."

The presence of the dogs, particularly with the relatives, brought out tears and laughter, he said. And some of the family members were so moved that they began sharing cell phone photos of their dogs back home.

Children at the assistance center also found support in the presence of the dogs, Kregal said, and it helped give their parents a break from child care.

Emergency workers of all backgrounds also found relief in the company of the dogs.

"It's the presence of them. I hug them and tell them they're doing a great job," said Janinne Blank, an Erie County health inspector who is assisting in the crash aftermath.

But the beauty of the dogs, unlike human mental health professionals, is that these four-legged therapists do not require those they care for to utter a single word.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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