The Best Coping Mechanism Might Be Covered in Fur: Helping Children Understand the Newtown, CT Tragedy

Animals Key to Helping Kids Cope with Stress

AS THE NEWS CONTINUES TO UNFOLD ABOUT THE TRAGEDY IN CONNECTICUT, American Humane Association stands ready to assist in any way it can. The facts in the case are still being uncovered, but we do know that this tragedy has left at least 20 of our most precious treasures – our children – and at least seven other adults dead in the wake of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. As a mother of three, it breaks my heart for the families affected; this is the call no parent ever, ever wants to receive. I shared the president’s sentiment in hugging my children a little tighter when they came home from school on Friday afternoon.

Animal-assisted therapy handlers constantly report is that children in particular feel they can share secrets with the animals and tell them their true feelings because they believe the animal will listen and love them unconditionally.

Last year, in our organization’s annual report, I mentioned the compassion fatigue in this country; every day we’re inundated with horrible stories in the news where our animals and children are suffering at the hands of an unforgiving world. While organizations like American Humane Association are out there doing all they can to prevent this senselessness, unfortunately it seems we have a long way to go before our work is done.

This year was particularly stormy for our children, and while attacks like this can unfortunately never be predicted, we need to be prepared to help our children cope whenever despicable acts like this occur. Following the massacre in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado this summer, American Humane Association shared tips on helping children understand what happened. Given that this Friday’s attack occurred in an elementary school – a place where children should feel safe no matter what – I feel it’s appropriate to share these with you again:

  • Keep an eye on children’s emotional reactions. Talk to children – and just as important – listen to them. Encourage kids to express how they feel and ask if anything is worrying them.
  • Regardless of age, reassure them frequently of their safety and security, and reinforce that you, local officials, and their communities are working to keep them safe. Older children may seem more capable, but can also be affected.
  • Keep your descriptions to children simple and limit their exposure to graphic information. Keep to the basic facts that something bad happened but that they are safe. Use words they can understand and avoid technical details and terms such as “smoke grenades” and “sniper.”
  • Limit their access to television and radio news reports since young children may have trouble processing the enormity of the experience, and sometimes believe that each news report may be a new attack.
  • Be prepared for children to ask if such violence can occur to them. Do not lie but repeat that it is very unlikely and that you, their teachers and school staff are there to keep them safe.
  • Watch for symptoms of stress, including clinginess, stomachaches, headaches, nightmares, trouble eating or sleeping, or changes in behavior.
  • If you are concerned about the way your children are responding, consult your doctor, school counselor or local mental health professional.
  • The last point is particularly important: if you feel your child needs help beyond your capacity, please do not delay in getting them the help they need.

One thing we have found over the years is that oftentimes, there’s no better therapy than what comes from an animal. Whether it’s with the family pet, a neighbor’s pet, or even a visit to the zoo, sometimes the best cure comes on four legs and is covered in fur. For years, American Humane Association’s animal-assisted therapy teams have worked to bring comfort to those in hospitals, schools, prisons, and to children of military families. One interesting observation our animal-assisted therapy handlers constantly report is that children in particular feel they can share secrets with the animals and tell them their true feelings because they believe the animal will listen and love them unconditionally.

While we may never know the motives for the shooter’s heinous actions, we do know that whenever tragedies like this arise – and, unfortunately they will again inevitably, as much as we’d like that to not be the case – we need to do all we can to help our children cope. The world can be a scary place for children, but by hugging a dog, or holding a cat, we can show them that everything’s going to be ok. The world is scary at times for all species, but the human-animal bond can help us heal.

Again, our deepest condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims in Connecticut. Please know you’ll remain in our thoughts and prayers.

AHA calls on Department of Veterans Affairs to reverse their policy and help veterans heal with service dogs!

As we head into the week of our second annual celebration of heroes on both ends of the leash, please join us on an important mission: We must encourage the Department of Veterans Affairs to reverse a policy that ends the reimbursement for veterans who suffer from PTSD for their use of service dogs while in recovery. The American Humane Association Hero Dogs national campaign that millions of folks from around the country have been celebrating isn’t just about honoring the winning dog – it is also about the much needed education in this country about the healing power of animals in our lives.

With the Department of Veteran Affairs recent ruling, our great country has created yet another barrier to pet ownership with this ruling on service dogs, which is indeed a travesty for the many families who are welcoming soldiers home from the battlefields of Iraq. But AHA’s mission is so very relevant: we are here ready to enlighten and educate millions about the power of compassion and healing with the human-animal bond – and we are here to make the world a better place. Today, American Humane Association, the nation’s leading advocate on behalf of animals and children, called on the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to reverse a policy that would end a program reimbursing veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for their use of service dogs while in recovery.

The policy is set to go into effect on Oct. 5, 2012. American Humane Association’s focus on animal-assisted therapy dates back to 1945 when we promoted therapy dogs as a means to help World War II veterans recover from the effects of war. We know from years of experience that the human-animal bond is a source of powerful healing, whether they are children suffering from cancer or military men and women who have suffered the stress of battle. Service dogs, in particular, are an amazing, positive resource for assisting our nation’s best and bravest though their physical pain and mental anguish. We call on the VA and the United States Congress to stand up for our veterans and their families by continuing to reimburse veterans who suffer from PTSD for the cost of medically approved service dogs. In a letter sent to United States Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), American Humane Association commended the senator for his leadership on the issue and his fight on behalf of veterans who enjoy the healing benefits of service dogs. How can others help us reverse this ruling?

You can help by signing the attached petition demanding that the VA reverse this ruling – and allowing our veterans who suffer from PTSD to be reimbursed for service dogs. Thank you for joining American Humane Association as we promote the healing power of service dogs for our nation’s war heroes. Help us to encourage heroes on both ends of the leash! Sign our petition today.

Animal-Assisted Therapy Program Report: Operation Purple® Family Retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina

Five therapy dogs and their handlers, including American Humane Association’s National Director of Animal-Assisted Therapy, Amy McCullough and her therapy dog, Bailey, attended a military family retreat on August 17-20 at Black Mountain, North Carolina. This Operation Purple® family retreat, one of eight operated nationwide by the National Military Family Association, is designed to help families reconnect after experiencing the stresses surrounding a deployment.

Over 100 families applied to attend the NC retreat and twenty were accepted to participate in this fun family getaway at no cost to the family beyond transportation. The four-day retreat took place at a campground in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. Families from every branch of the military were present including Army, Navy, National Guard, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Nearly 100 people attended, with approximately half of those being children ranging in age from 3-13.

Many of the families were stationed at bases in North Carolina such as Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune, but others traveled from as far away as Georgia, Virginia and Maryland. One of the requirements for eligibility is that the military member must have returned from deployment between 3-12 months prior to the camp and many were returning from multiple deployments.

The therapy dogs were present on the first day of the retreat to greet the families as they arrived at camp to check-in. In addition, the therapy dogs were on-site each day during mid-day free time for those families who wanted to spend time with the dogs. As families arrived weary from their hours on the road, children rushed to greet the dogs. Children who were initially afraid of dogs were able to pet the friendly, wagging therapy dogs. Families who missed their own pet were comforted by the dogs’ presence and the dogs served as a way for the children and parents from different bases to begin to talk and get to know each other. At times, the therapy dogs pulled a pensive child sitting by him/herself into the group activities.

As the weekend unfolded, one could witness the families’ increased interaction whether it was a father and son engaging in friendly competition on the basketball court or parents encouraging their children on the climbing wall. One father spoke of the role his son assumed as the “man of the house” in his absence and his surprise when he returned to find his son taller than he is. Through the therapy dog interaction and other camp activities, he’s learning how to relate to his son again.

Overall, the therapy dogs are a valuable part of the camp in helping establish a sense of normalcy and home as the military families begin to adjust to their life upon return from deployment.

To Russia (and Sweden) with Love: Taking AWRI’s Mission of Compassion Worldwide

Recently, I was invited to Russia and Sweden to represent American Humane Association and our new Animal Welfare Research Institute (AWRI). This innovative platform will advance our knowledge of the challenges facing the wellness, welfare, and well-being of children and animals and strengthen the remarkable physical and emotional bond between human beings and the creatures that share and enrich our world. I addressed the concept of a collaborative research model whereby medical and veterinary research would work together to advance health and welfare for both children and animals.

This new model is generating tremendous interest and support among the global scientific community. Did you know that there are approximately 60,000 vertebrate species on this planet? But an overwhelming proportion of the research is dedicated to just one of those species – humans. Our new model will change this.

On my trip scientists from around the world reported on the rapid advances in genetic research. At the International Conference of Advances in Canine and Feline Genomics and Inherited Diseases, the presenters explored such topics as the genetic causes for gait patterns in horses, cancers in dogs, deafness in people, and infertility in high-producing dairy cows. Genetic testing is likely to improve breeding programs and advance the health of animals. Ethical concerns were also addressed throughout my trip as scientists attempt to grasp the multiple implications of their discoveries.

I was invited to give a lecture at the newly forming genomic institute at the St. Petersburg State University. Dr. Stephen O’Brien, former head of the Laboratory for Genomic Diversity at the National Institutes of Health, is helping to create the new institute. Dr. O’Brien and I worked together in the United States to help develop a new genetic tool for identifying causes of diseases in a wide variety of cats. There I met young scientists at the institute who are very excited about their future work.

Students I met while lecturing at St. Petersburg State University, and Dr. Stephen O’Brien. They are standing in the longest academic hallway in the world.

During my downtime I did get to fulfill a dream of mine, which was to visit the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, one of the best, largest, and oldest collections of art in the world. Boasting a collection of pieces from antiquity, the Renaissance, the impressionist era and everything in between, this former palace is truly a sight to behold, and a must-visit when in St. Petersburg.

Following my time in Russia, I traveled to Sweden for another presentation. I also attended the Dog Health Workshop in Sweden where I chaired a session with attendees from 20 countries. The goal of those participating is to improve the health and welfare of purebred dogs, street dogs, and unwanted dogs throughout the world. American Humane Association has been invited to continue working with global partners on this goal.

As my husband, Jerry, has always said, you learn just as much at conferences during the breaks as you do during the sessions themselves. With so many countries represented, it was fascinating to talk to everyone and learn what they are doing in their lands. A collaborative approach is essential for expanding our knowledge base, and I look forward to the opportunity to continue sharing discoveries with our colleagues around the world.


From left to right – Panel discussing international collaboration to advance canine health and welfare:

  • Sofia Malm – Swedish Kennel Club
  • Steve Dean – The UK Kennel Club
  • Patricia Olson – American Humane Association
  • Kari Jarvinen – FCI (Fédération Cynologique Internationale) – representing 89 countries
  • Peter Friedrich – German Kennel Club
  • Urs Giger – University of Pennsylvania (geneticist) Ulf Uddman – Swedish Kennel Club
  • Ake Hedhammar – Swedish Kennel Club; Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

Pfizer Animal Health/American Humane Association Study Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy on Kids with Cancer

I am proud to say I was there when the American Humane Association and Pfizer Animal Health decided to combine efforts to study the benefits of animal assisted therapy (AAT) on pediatric cancer patients, and their families.

A wagging tail can inspire children and adults in ways which we are still struggling to better understandFor years, medical professionals have touted the healing power of pets. There’s evidence of this from around the world, but having said that, there’s little data specifically regarding pediatric cancer. And while most expects concur, the presence of dogs is helpful – questions remain. How exactly are there presence a benefit? Under what circumstances? Are dogs more a benefit who are trained to do one thing more than another? Are certain families more or less targeted to benefit? Most of all, how does this mechanism work that dogs are able to reach into the soul of people undergoing treatment?

The research study, “Canines and Childhood Cancer: Examining the Effects of Therapy Dogs with Childhood Cancer Patients and their Families,” is a multi-year effort taking place in hospital settings across the U.S. that will examine the specific medical, behavioral, and mental health benefits AAT may have for children with cancer, and their families. A comprehensive literature review has been completed as a first step, and may be downloaded here.

In addition to the literature review, focus groups and interviews were conducted with hospital staff, family caregivers and animal-assisted therapy handlers, to glean vital information regarding childhood cancer epidemiology and treatment, the well-being of patients and families who are affected by childhood cancer, the applications of AAT for various populations in need, the state of AAT effectiveness research, and the considerations that need to be made when incorporating therapy animals into clinical settings.

Findings from the literature review, focus groups and interviews will help guide the design of the overall study. Preliminary findings showed that no standard protocol for an animal-assisted therapy session (i.e., length, number and type of participants in each session, session activities, or talking points) seemed to exist at any of the research hospital sites; each animal-handler team went about their work somewhat differently. This finding underlines the need for this study to develop consistent animal-assisted therapy treatment fidelity across sites in order to conduct the type of rigorous research needed in the human-animal interaction field.

The information gathered during this initial phase will serve to inform a scientific study design in order to conduct a pilot trial with three to five pediatric oncology sites across the country. Upon the conclusion of the pilot trial, researchers anticipate the launch of a full clinical trial across multiple sites for 12-18 months. During this time, certified therapy dogs and their handlers will conduct regular animal-assisted therapy sessions with pediatric oncology patients and their families, which will be evaluated by a range of biological, psychological and social measures.

“Now we begin the important work of validating and quantifying something that we have observed and felt for years through our own experiences — that interaction with animals can provide beneficial effects for people in need of comfort, encouragement and healing,” said Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D., president and CEO, American Humane Association.

Results from the study will be widely disseminated through professional conferences and peer-reviewed journals in a diverse range of disciplines, including veterinary medicine, pediatric oncology, social work, and animal-assisted therapy.

Lucy, Funny Little Dog: She Lived to Put Smiles on Faces

“Wha hoo” says Lucy, our miniature Australian Shepherd, as she walked into the large gymnasium-sized room at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Lucy spent eight years at the direction of medical professionals to help stroke, spinal cord injury and burn injury victims as a part of an animal assisted therapy (AAT) program. When Lucy entered a room everyone knew it, as she announced her entrance. I was embarrassed and worked to correct this attention-seeking behavior for a time. But it was an effort in futility. Lucy’s “Wha hoo” sparked laughter. What could I do?

Once our animal assisted therapy assignment was to help a little boy – about 12 years old – to better use his voice by calling Lucy from the other side of the large room. Thing is, the boy was afraid of dogs. Why would he ever want to call a dog who he was afraid of? I tried telling a few jokes, and told the boy Lucy liked jokes and would laugh:

Q: Why shouldn’t you tell a secret to pigs?

A: Because pigs are squealers.

Each time I told a joke, Lucy, would howl “Wha hoo.” The jokes didn’t make the boy laugh, but Lucy did. And within 10 minutes, Lucy somehow broke the ice  and the boy quietly began to ask Lucy to “sit” or “roll over.” He was amazed that she listened to him. Lucy visited the Rehab Institute weekly, and each week the boy seemed to gain more confidence and have more fun. We were told he had two photos in his room, one was of Michael Jordan and another was a photo of Lucy.

During one visit we found that the little boy was no longer there. My wife Robin and I were worried because sometimes, in truth, the stories don’t always have happy endings. One of the physical therapists came up to us in tears. We thought, ‘Oh no.” She walked right by Robin and me, and went straight to Lucy with a cookie, and said “thank you.” She then hugged us, and tearfully told us the little boy went home much sooner than expected; she credited Lucy.

The wonders of animal assisted therapy are mind-boggling but definitive. No one knows how dogs like Lucy can wiggle their way into the hearts of people and somehow achieve success when medical professionals cannot. Lucy died peacefully today, just a few weeks shy of her 16th birthday. Our veterinarian commented, “She was lucky to have you and Robin.” Actually, we were lucky to have the little funny dog who made people laugh.

To honor Lucy and her dedication to animal assisted therapy, American Humane Association has created a fund that will provide assistance and recognition for other AAT dogs just like her.  Contribute to Lucy’s Fund today to help us create the Hero Dog Award.  Through Lucy’s award we’ll honor her legacy and forever celebrate the amazing contributions AAT and other heroic dogs just like her provide, through the power of the human-animal bond. Our goal is to raise an initial $25,000.  Robin and I along with my friends at Pet World Radio are kicking off Lucy’s campaign with an initial contribution of $2,800.  Please help us honor our special dog and help us all to memorialize the incredible efforts of these amazing animals.