by Airman 1st Class Jelani Gibson
82nd Training Wing Public Affairs
5/1/2013 - SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- A
black Labrador comes in tongue out and eyes full of curiosity as she
wags her tail back and forth in a frenzy, looking to and fro as she does
so. As she walks into the office accompanied by her handler, her paws
patter upon the carpet floor and she creeps up to complete strangers to
be pat on the head. Ushered along and panting heavily with each breath,
she finally comes into the office room and plops down onto the floor
with a distinctive thump.
As a disaster stress dog, this type of interaction was routine for her,
and her most recent mission had been to help those affected by the
fertilizer plant disaster in West, Texas.
"When a person interacts with her by petting her, the stress level from
that person is absorbed by the dog," said Lee Boedeker, an aircraft
maintenance systems instructor for the 364th Training Squadron at
Sheppard Air Force Base.
Boedeker is the handler for a dog he affectionately calls Smokey. They
both volunteer and are a certified dog team for Therapy Dogs
International (TDI), an organization that has 24,750 dogs and 22,000
TDI was founded in 1976 and has its headquarters in Flanders, New
Jersey. TDI uses therapy dogs for a variety of mental health services
including children reading programs in libraries and schools, hospitals
and disaster relief.
With 48 out of 24,750 dogs being certified to specialize in disaster
relief work, dogs like Smokey are a part of a very elite field.
Requirements include eight hours of testing as well as FEMA approved
courses, including psychological first aid.
"Disaster dog teams are tested more to cope with the psychological and
physical elements of disaster situations," said Boedeker. "They have to
be able to approach people unconditionally."
Many aspects of disasters are emotional, which lends a unique challenge for a therapy dog and their handler.
"A lot of these people are stressed out," Boedeker said. "Nobody is sure what's going to happen next."
They not only focus on victims of the disaster, but first responder personnel as well.
"Red Cross, chaplains, firefighters, command personnel and paramedics,
they all know the value of what a dog can provide," said Boedeker. "They
know what the dogs can do."
Boedeker counts the change that he and Smokey help cause in people's lives as one of his main motivations for what he does.
"Being with her puts a smile on your face," Boedeker said. "You see a change in the attitude of a person."
Therapy dogs like Smokey also help families with the recovery process of
rebuilding their lives, whether it is the loss of a loved one or the
damage to their valuable assets like a home.
"You have families that lost everything," said Boedeker. "When the dogs
are present, during these moments their stress level reduces
Boedeker notes that when the dogs are present during these moments there is a change in their attitude.
"It's gratifying to see that happen," Boedeker said. "As they try to
rebuild in the aftermath they have a better sense of well-being and
think more clearly."
At eight years of age, Smokey is in her sixth year of work with TDI and
her third year of disaster work. With deployments ranging from the
Bastrop Fire in 2011, tornadoes in Texas and the blast in West, Texas,
she has seen numerous disaster situations like many of her other
Disaster stress relief dogs were also present during the 9/11 attacks
and there are currently disaster dogs in Boston and Newtown, as well
that are supplemented by regular therapy dogs.
"We have 100 dogs in Boston, 30 going to West Texas and 70 dogs still in
Newtown ," Boedeker said. "These are all long-term commitments by
handlers and their dog teams."
Boedeker counts the preparation as key to a team's success.
"TDI has proven that dogs can make a difference," Boedeker said. "When
we deploy, we have everything we need for at least a week."
Boedeker initially got into disaster relief because he worked with
someone from TDI. He had Smokey as a pup and thought she would be a good
fit for the work.
"A good therapy dog gives unconditional love no matter who you are,"
Boedeker said. "They've got the gift of giving and all we're doing is