Bringing light, love to dark days

Anise the dog just celebrated her 12th birthday — 84th in dog years — last Tuesday. She is a yellow labrador retriever with a white-gold coat, missing her left eye as a result of surgery performed after a tumor was discovered during a routine health checkup. This did not change the dog’s inherent drive and work ethic. Only two weeks after her surgery, Anise was back to work as a crisis care-management dog, alongside her owner LaWana Heald, the pacific southwest regional director of HOPE Dogs Animal-Assisted Crisis Response.

Heald and Anise were invited back to Santa Monica College during the Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill on Thursday, Oct. 17 for the first time since the June shooting on campus.

In the 10 days following the shooting, HOPE volunteers worked long shifts to offer comfort and support to those in need.

AACR is a national volunteer organization that trains and certifies handler canine teams to provide comfort and support to people affected by trauma, according to their official website.

HOPE is a national organization, divided into larger regions so teams who go out are local, with canine crisis response teams living in the greater Los Angeles area. The volunteer teams travel across the state as needed, offering a unique response to otherwise impenetrable emotional situations.

HOPE dogs and their handlers never self-deploy. When an institution or organization seeks their help, the teams travel at their own expense. The money HOPE does have is used to occasionally rent a larger van so multiple HOPE dogs can travel together when a site requires a team such as during the recent Prescott fires in Arizona.

As part of HOPE, dog owners and their personal pets go through extensive training to pass the tests required of dogs and handlers to be certified by HOPE.

HOPE is considered a comprehensive and difficult test to pass and is recognized nationally.

“Dogs must be born with a certain disposition so that they are not ruffled around screaming children, who might even pull a dog’s tail when upset,” Heald said. “The dog must stay calm in chaotic environments. As far as being calm and pure sweetness, it doesn’t get better than Anise.”

Once certified and on the job, HOPE dogs are trained to approach people who display inviting gestures. Most people reach out a hand and smile, which Anise recognizes as a welcoming gesture. If patted on her hindquarters, she takes this as a cue to lie on her back and submit to tummy rubs.

Heald explained that in June, faculty and students constantly looked forward to Anise’s daily visits to SMC. She became part of SMC’s Twittersphere with different departments anticipating her visits with tweets such as “Anise is on her way back to the Media Center,” according to Heald.

When Heald and Anise visited the Media Center, just days after the shooting, faculty members who had heard the gunshots ring out from the library endured tremendous stress. The library staff members were “surprised at the long-lasting effects of the visits from the dogs,” Heald said.

On the night of the vigil to honor the victims of the shooting, Anise was close-by to comfort family members of one of the shooting victims, Margarita Gomez. Reluctant to leave the vigil, Heald and Anise were there to accompany the girls and their mother on their walk home.

The HOPE team was ready again to greet students as they re-entered the library to reclaim personal belongings left behind after evacuating the campus.

Heald said that in occasional encounters with people who are deathly terrified of dogs, Anise proves to be exceptional.

“We sometimes meet people who are absolutely terrified of dogs,” Heald said. “We’ve seen Anise, and other dogs take a few of these people from terror to experiencing the petting of a dog for the first time in their life.”

A study from University of South Carolina, Columbia showed that the actions of talking to and petting a dog are accompanied by lower blood pressure. To clarify whether cognition, conditioning or tactual contact exerted the major influence in this so-called “pet effect,” the study included 60 male and female undergraduates with either positive or neutral attitudes toward dogs to interact with a dog tactually, verbally and visually while the individual’s blood pressure and heart rate were recorded.

The study’s results revealed that the subjects’ blood pressure levels were lowest during dog-petting and higher while talking to the dog. Touch appeared to be a major component of the “pet effect,” while cognitive factors contributed to a lesser degree. Implications for coping with hypertension were discussed, and suggestions for further research were stated, according to the study.

“Some of the faculty at the SMC Media Center told us of their surprise,” Heald said. “They felt much calmer after their visit from the HOPE dogs and that the effects lasted well after their time with the dogs. They reported that effects of spending some time with the dogs were long-lasting.”

Heald and Anise will return to campus Thursday offering support and affection to the SMC community.

Arlene KarnoComment