For nearly 20 years, trained therapy dogs have been visiting nursing home residents and others who could use a furry friend through Tails of Joy.
The dogs and their owners took on a new role after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, providing wordless comfort in the days after the tragedy.
That aid led to a 2013 state law that created a certification for canine crisis teams to assist families, friends, and even counselors during an emergency.
Tails of Joy recently assessed and approved nine sets of volunteers and dogs as Animal-Assisted Crisis Response teams.
Tails of Joy is a nonprofit organization based in Manchester with around 80 members, about 50 of them active, registered pet therapy trainers. The teams visit nursing homes, schools, prisons, and halfway houses.
The interactions take advantage of the strong bond between people and animals, the American Humane Society says on its website. That bond “has been a source of solace and relief for those who suffer from physical or emotional pain,” the organization says.
Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to help children who experience abuse or neglect, chemotherapy patients, and veterans and their families, the website says.
Tails of Joy offered its service to the Newtown community after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. Amid a slew of humans offering their support, dogs proved to be uniquely effective in providing comfort.
This led to the idea of forming an animal assisted crisis response program. Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, worked with Tails of Joy and other groups to craft legislation in 2013.
The law mandates that volunteer canine response teams be evaluated and registered with an animal-assisted activity organization so that they are ready to provide therapy within 24 hours of a tragedy.
Tails of Joy President Sandra Lok says the Department of Children and Families has been put in charge of contacting and coordinating registered animal therapists, and it is still working on this task.
Tails of Joy teams, however, has gone ahead and assessed and certified nine teams.
“Our system is in place, and our dogs and trainers are ready to go,” Lok says.
The group’s handler-dog crisis teams are: Rozelyn Beck and Cadbury; Becky Caldwell and Lily; Michelle Finnegan and Vinny; Lok and two dogs, Ginger and Nutmeg; Karen Noel-Freda and Apollo; Alexis Pariano and Oscar, and Laurel Rabschutz with Iggy and Dooley
The newly certified teams were put to the test almost immediately, as they traveled to RHAM and Bolton high schools to comfort grieving students who had lost classmates in car accidents.
The dogs are trained to provide a sense of calm and a feeling of support to tragedy victims. Lok says the dogs are very much aware of the effect they have on grieving people.
At RHAM, Lok watched one dog take notice of a girl who was sitting by herself, evidently upset. The dog walked right over and snuggled up to the grieving girl.
“They’re very effective, and I think they know it,” Lok said.
The nine teams also participated in a large-scale drill at Douglas Manor in Windham on May 17, where dogs were tested on their ability to provide adequate comfort to the “victims.”
The drill was a success, and Tails of Joy is proud to say that it is ready to respond when needed.
Organizations may request Tails of Joy Animal Assisted Crisis Response Teams by contacting the crisis response phone line at 860-258-4100.