By Lianna Semonsen
A Look into Animal-Assisted Crisis Response
Nestled in between pockets of housing developments and back along a long, gravel road behind a fire station sits the headquarters of Cascade Canine Crisis Response, which lies inside the home of Richard and Marcy Lowy. The house is guarded by an ornate metal gate and sits in a leafy jungle with floral embellishments and vibrant rhododendrons. Through the garage is a cobblestone corridor that leads to the front door of the house.
Inside, the headquarters has a distinctive atmosphere: homey and eclectic. The floor, along with sofas and chairs, is covered in dog hair, and the corner of the room contains a massive square bed littered with brightly colored chew toys. Light seeps in through snout-smudged windows, making the main room feel expansive. Each wall is painted a different vivid color and is adorned with countless paintings and photographs. One photo shows Richard and Marcy sitting beside their own dogs, Willy and Arlo. Willy and Arlo are father and son, respectively, and both are Portuguese Water Dogs and are canine members of Cascade Canine Crisis Response, or CCCR.
In their difficult line of work, Richard, Marcy, Willy, Arlo, and other teams from CCCR strive to provide their clients with solace and support after incidents of trauma or crisis. This is a very difficult task that not only requires the proper training, but also a certain attitude and an aptitude for therapeutic conversation and comfort.
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For thousands of years, various domesticated animals have coexisted with humans and served various purposes, which include being a food source, supplying labour, helping with hunting, and even providing pest control. Some of these animals can also fall under another very important category of assistance, one with psychological effects: comfort. A common example of this is the service dog. But what do these service dogs do, and how do they do it?
Scientific and medical research has found that many animals have positive effects on humans. Owning a pet can help prevent allergies from occurring later in a child’s life by strengthening the immune system and fighting asthma and eczema (“Research”), specifically with the dust that comes from pets which help protect against viruses (Sifferlin). Dogs especially are also wonderful for Alzheimer’s patients, for they can help in many ways, including reminding the patient to eat and drink, preventing feelings of loneliness and isolation by providing social interaction, and soothing a patient who might suffer from Sundowner’s Syndrome (when the patient becomes agitated and confused at sundown) (“Research”). Animals have many benefits for those with autism because they provide “unconditional, non-judgmental love and companionship” for people, especially children, and can even be trained to “recognize patterns of repetitive motion and [know] how to interrupt them by distracting the child” (“Research”). Dogs can also help cancer patients in many ways, including boosting confidence and morale, being a distraction for the patient, and encouraging patients to play and eat (“Research”). Dogs can also use their 220 million olfactory receptors to sniff out and diagnose various kinds of cancer in humans (“Research”), as well as to find Volatile Organic Compounds, not to mention drugs and bombs (“Can Dogs”). According to the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation, risk of heart attacks is 40% higher in those who have never owned a cat, and those who own dogs are more likely to exercise, therefore lowering blood pressure as well as blood cholesterol levels (“Research”). Animals help greatly with conditions like Depression and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, for on the simplest level, dogs provide a reason to get out of the house; they give structure to a person’s life; they boost self-confidence; and they provide companionship and unconditional love that can greatly impact a person’s life (“Research”).
As for the scientific benefits, many studies have been done on the effects of Human Animal Interaction, or HAI, especially those that pertain to the hormone oxytocin (Beetz et al.). Oxytocin has many psychological and psychophysiological effects and its level has been shown to increase through HAI (Beetz et al.). In a recent analysis, researchers proposed that the Oxytocin released with HAI animal contact explains the many effects that HAI has on patients (Beetz et al.). Many of these effects include the improvement of social attention and behavior, interaction with others, and mood; the reduction of cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure, and other stress-related medical conditions; a decrease in anxiety and fear; and a betterment of mental and physical health (Beetz et al.). And with scientific research backing them up, a recent survey stated that 27% of people believe that companionship is the most important service that animals can provide for humans (“The Human-Animal Connection”). Ninety percent of pet owners from the survey stated that their pets have increased their “quality of life,” and 14% of pet owners feel that their pets are their primary source of comfort (“The Human-Animal Connection”).
The domestication of dogs dates back several millennia – sometime around 15,000 years ago (Pappas). Yet, this date has been hotly debated for years, with recent discoveries suggesting canine domestication occurred earlier than previously thought: a canine skull was recently found in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, dating back about 33,000 years, and was more closely related to a modern domesticated dog than it was to wolves (Pappas). At any rate, canines and humans have coexisted for thousands of years and have grown to thrive in tandem. The earliest depiction of Animal-Assisted Therapy is found in a first century Roman fresco of a blind man being led by a dog (Pappas). The 1750s marked some of the earliest cases of “systematic instruction of guide dogs” to help the blind in Paris (Cohen). The “modern guide dog movement” began in Germany following World War I, when Dr. Gerhard Stalling left his own German Shepherd with a blind patient, and soon began to notice how protective the dog became of the patient (Cohen). In 1916 the German Ambulance Association started assigning dogs to veterans to help adjust them to life outside the war, and in 1923 the German Shepherd Dog Association Training Center was created, and supplied 4,000 guide dogs for German veterans and civilians (Cohen). Today, roughly a century later, “assistance dogs help people with a wide range of challenges, from visual and hearing impairments to epilepsy, autism, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder” (Cohen).
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I was fortunate enough to get a chance to interview Richard and Marcy Lowy. When I arrived at their home – Cascade Canine Crisis Response headquarters – I was greeted by the Lowys: a smiling elderly couple and their two dogs. Two black mops by the names of Willy and Arlo bombarded me, tails wagging and ears up. Arlo, a sixteen month old puppy with a boisterous manner and high energy, fought his evident urges to jump up and hug me. His father, Willy, appeared less rambunctious, but still clearly pleased to see a new face. After I pet the dogs, Marcy and Richard ushered me over to a small wooden table with a ceramic plate of cookies in the middle.
“Gingersnaps with chocolate chips,” Marcy told me. As we began the interview, both Arlo and Willy retreated to their bed in the corner of the room and fell asleep within minutes. Occasionally, throughout our conversation, the Lowys and I would be distracted by Willy barking in his sleep or by Arlo chewing on a toy. When the two hour “interview” (though it was more a conversation) came to an end, Marcy stood up to get her cookie recipe and as she did so did both dogs. Willy calmly followed Marcy to the cupboard while Arlo happily ran at me and jumped to give me a hug and lick me in the face while I was still sitting in my chair. After Arlo had jumped off of me, and as I got up to thank the Lowys and leave, both dogs followed me to the door to say goodbye. Clearly these dogs were very in tune to people. As I left I thanked Richard, Marcy, Willy, and Arlo.
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After retiring and spending three years traveling across the world, Richard and Marcy Lowy decided they couldn’t go any longer without having dogs. They had owned Golden Retrievers back before their retirement, but when they discovered Portuguese Water Dogs their hearts warmed and they searched for a breeder. “Generally with Portuguese Water Dogs… you don’t go and pick your puppy,” stated Marcy. “The breeder interviews you—some of them will even come to see your home (it’s like adopting a baby)—and they match the right dog to the right owner.” Otis was certainly the right dog for the Lowys. Nine months old when they got him, Otis had an amazing soul, and was intuitive, gentle, calm, and mellow. It was with his help that the Lowys became interested in Animal-Assisted Therapy. The Lowys first heard about the world of Animal-Assisted Therapy during Marcy’s work at Child’s Play, a toy store she started in 1979. Before retiring, Richard Lowy had been an oncologist and Marcy, with a background in counseling, knew that she wanted her store to be focused on toys that cater to the individual development of children. In 1992, a customer came into the toy store and told Marcy and her partner about his job as a physician and how he was learning more about the field of Animal-Assisted Therapy. Marcy was intrigued by this and filed the information away. The Lowys sold Child’s Play in 1995 and got Otis several years later.
“[Otis] so exceeded our expectations and led us down this path,” explained Marcy with a tone of admiration. Otis lived a long, full life with them as part of their crisis response team, but as he grew older, Richard and Marcy decided to look for a new dog. When they got Willy from the breeder, they knew they wanted him neutered, but decided to bring him to a sperm bank first. Shortly after, Otis’ health declined and he was put on Hospice care, as the Lowys made sure not to use euthanasia. “He died in our arms,” remarked Marcy. When they decided to get a second dog, they brought some of Willy’s sperm to the breeder, who matched it with a female Portuguese Water Dog. The dog produced eight puppies, and the breeder knew to socialize them right from birth, for that produces great therapy dogs. The Lowys originally wanted a female dog, but the breeder had a different idea and showed them one of the male puppies, and they fell in love. The Lowys explained to me how you cannot train a dog to have a temperament for Animal-Assisted Therapy; you have to train what’s already there. Arlo clearly had “it.”
The Lowys’ first experience in Animal-Assisted Crisis Response came with their involvement in HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, now a national organization. Yet when the Lowys worked there, HOPE did not achieve great success. HOPE held its first board meeting in the Lowys’ dining room and spent much of its time trying to find connections for work opportunities. “We spent a long, long time, almost years, trying to build contacts,” explained Richard. The Lowys underwent rigorous training and joined a program through Red Cross called Disaster Action Team, but after countless two AM calls that felt pointless, they eventually realized this program was not what they were looking for. A friend of theirs – an attorney, ex-marine, ex-cop, Pet Partners member – introduced them to the Washington County Sheriff Crisis Response Team program, which they joined and are still a part of today.
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When the Lowys made the decision to leave HOPE after six and a half years of work there, they began their own, local organization in 2008, which they named Cascade Canine Crisis Response, or CCCR. Their experiences at HOPE had left them with many useful connections and chaplains from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office helped CCCR build contacts. “We’re very lucky that we have those connections,” commented Richard.
“The important thing,” Marcy said, “is that we never have been and won’t be First Responders. We work at the recovery phase.” First Responders are “fire, police, and emergency medical personnel,” and are prepared at all times for emergency situations (“First”) and, as the name suggests, they are the first to respond to a crisis situation. Animal-Assisted Crisis Response also differs from what is known as Animal-Assisted Therapy, in that it is a branch off regular Animal-Assisted Therapy and deals more with the emotional aspect, rather than true therapy. “We don’t present ourselves as being therapists,” stated Marcy Lowy, matter of factly, “because we’re not.” The biggest difference between crisis response animals and standard Animal-Assisted Therapy animals is the environment they work in (Balas). For the most part, standard Animal-Assisted therapy takes place in a controlled location at a designated time, and it deals with a “routine range of emotions,” while crisis response is much less “normal” (Balas). In most cases, the teams work in unfamiliar locations, and the patients react in many different ways. According to Connie Jantzen, the president of National Animal Assisted Crisis Response, “the dogs have to be able to understand those intense emotions and bring them back to a feeling of calm” (qtd. in Balas). “You never know what’s going to happen,” said Richard Lowy.
Another important aspect, especially in canine crisis response, is how the handler and the canine work together. To ensure that both members of volunteer teams – the canine and the handler – are familiarized with these concepts and prepared for these events, CCCR trains and certifies the qualified teams. Cascade Canine Crisis Response team members are put through rigorous training exercises, such as FEMA Basics Incident Command System training and certification. They also are trained in First Aid, CPR, Canine-Assisted Crisis Response, and every two years, members must re-certify in either Animal-Assisted Activities, Animal-Assisted Therapy, or Animal-Assisted Intervention (“Cascade Canine Crisis Response”). “The single most important part of the training… was how does the handler respond,” explained Marcy. “How does the handler [remain] present for the people they are encountering? You know, the dog is the bridge to break down any resistance or… any initial shock. But the person on the other end of the leash has to be aware of the things you can and can’t say.”
The handlers have to also know what ways they can be of assistance, and when the appropriate times are to approach a crisis survivor. “We’re there to interact with people who look like they’re going to benefit from being able to touch a dog and cuddle with him,” explained Marcy. “We would offer whatever time they needed to be with us and the dog.” Handlers have to be readily available to care for the health and safety of the animal, to provide interactions or interventions, to sense stress signs and signals in animals and humans, and to communicate effectively (Anderson and Scott). The canines, on the other hand, have to be able to respond to the handler, be able to perform tasks such as engaging with people, they have to be attentive to the handler even when distractions are present and allow the handler to re-gain control, and they have to demonstrate resilience in coping with stress. (Anderson and Scott).
According to Richard, CCCR goes wherever they are needed and where they are instructed to go. They provide whatever service and emotional support is needed for people after traumatic incidents – they support schools after deaths and injuries, they assist prosecutors with child or adult witnesses (“Cascade Canine Crisis Response”), and have several more regular jobs that are more similar to Animal-Assisted Therapy. They also help emergency responders and national organizations, giving support to both the survivors and the responders, as well working alongside clergy or other responders (“Cascade Canine Crisis Response”).
Before 2009, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office had decided they did not want any sort of Animal-Assisted Therapy in the Washington County Jail. However, one of CCCR’s chaplain friends convinced the Sheriff’s Office to allow several teams to come in after an unpleasant event involving a suicide attempt occurred in the jail. They brought the dogs down to the jail and sat in the main room. Inmates would come up, and as they would begin to pet the dogs, they would also start to talk with the handlers about whatever they needed to. “[The dogs] totally changed the atmosphere in the room,” explained Marcy, “[The inmates] became open, they were able to talk about the things that they were thinking and they felt supported.” After the success of their first visit, CCCR was invited to return and this relationship soon became a pilot program. In 2009, the pilot program became a fully functioning program. “Willy loves it there,” explained Marcy, “There are always crumbs on the floor.”
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The day was October 1st, 2015. With overcast skies above, professors, janitors, administrators, cafeteria workers, coaches, and students bustled around the campus on the way to their respective jobs and classes at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, a rural logging community. The shooting started when a man dressed in heavy body armor and carrying roughly six weapons walked into a classroom and began firing off rounds (Sidner et al.). He proclaimed that he “had been waiting to do this for years” (qtd. in Sidner et al.) and ultimately killed nine people and injured many more, and was found dead at a later time (Sidner et al.). The small community was thrown into complete and utter panic (Sidner et al.). “This is a small town and everyone is affected,” remarked Senator Jeff Merkley, the cousin of one of those killed (qtd. Sidner et al.). The job of organizations such as Cascade Canine Crisis Response was to comfort those involved in this horrific tragedy in any way.
Marcy Lowy, Willy, and a couple of other teams from CCCR traveled to Roseburg when they received a call from the Red Cross asking them to help out. They stayed overnight, which was unusual for them, because CCCR is a very local organization that tends to work very near to their headquarters. After arriving at the quaint campus, Marcy, Willy and the other teams worked their way around the school, introducing themselves and their canines to anyone who looked like they could use support and comfort and didn’t shy away from dogs. When a Red Cross worker approached them, bringing over a woman who was quite “visibly distressed,” Marcy introduced Willy and the other team she was working with and began to simply talk with this woman. She was the yoga teacher of one of the students who was killed in the shooting. As she began to pet Willy, words spilled out of her mouth as she explained “how guilty she felt that she was there on campus: that maybe she didn’t belong there. But she had to share her grief with people who were experiencing [the same situation]” (qtd. in Lowy). Marcy found contacts for the woman: people in charge of the student’s memorial service, people who just wanted to talk. “She got a big smile on her face, ‘cause now she had something she could focus on,” said Marcy, with a reflective tone. “It was started by her being able to talk because she was with the dogs, and wound up being something else.” The therapeutic part of the work the Lowys, their dogs, and the other teams of CCCR do comes from the ability of the handlers to create a supportive environment and the ability of dogs to open people up and comfort them. CCCR provides this valuable and highly important service for their community.
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