When I read about a team of therapy dogs sent to comfort victims, survivors and families after the tragic Orlando massacre, I felt a warm glow inside. This story had THE biggest feel-good factor. Twelve golden retrievers right there with those in need to offer their therapeutic doggy affection, of which they have oodles and more to spare. The twelve are just a few of the one hundred and twenty dogs the American Lutheran Church has in its Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs team which has been helping human victims through difficult times for the best part of 20 years.
“Just the simple act of talking to the dogs is where the real therapy comes. People dealing with tragedy and grief in their life want somebody to talk to and need someone who will listen to them without any form of judgement – and dogs are the perfect listeners. As the victims tell their stories and let out all their anguish, they can gently stroke the comfort dog and that’s when the healing takes place.”
Tim Hetzner president of the charity explains “The dogs help provide a feeling of security to the victims they visit. Many of the people who stroke the dogs break down, having a moment of vulnerability, which is vital during these devastating situations.”
“Dogs show unconditional love”
Four words that say it all.
The dog’s best-friend status with humans reaches back into the far mists of time, but the first person recorded putting the bf concept into words was 18th century King Frederick of Prussia who apparently described one of his Italian greyhounds as his “best friend”. Wise man. And his contemporary, French philosopher Voltaire wrote that the dog, “C’est le meilleur ami que puisse avoir l’homme” – the best friend man could have.
It’s so true. No-one needs to tell a doggie’s human that they are the most loyal, devoted, loving, trusting, forgiving and patient of creatures. They shower you with excited doggy kisses when you walk through the door. They never get out of bed the wrong side and they’re always happy to see you, which is more than can be said of most humans. They are known to reduce anxiety and depression in their human companions, bring down blood pressure, lower heart rate, relieve symptoms of PTSD, and induce the release of oxytocin, the love hormone, in both human and dog. Dog-love comes with no strings attached.
That’s why they’ve proved so beneficial for the sick, the dying, the traumatised and the lonely. “People dealing with tragedy in their lives need this more than anything: uncomplicated affection.”
Ideally, the dog/human relationship is symbiotic – they get as much out of their relationship with us as we do with them. Which is quite unlike our relationship with most other animals whom generally speaking, we make useful to us, while we are harmful to them in varying degrees.
The Lutheran Church’s comfort dogs are called K-9s, because they are ‘service dogs’ used for a particular task that benefits humans. K-9 service dogs are trained as K-9s so that humans can use them for some specific task they want done, but that may not necessarily be in the canines’ best interests.
They are given a wide variety of tasks to perform in the service of man, and many of those tasks are dangerous: guarding people, property and places; attacking and subduing offenders; searching and rescuing; sniffing for drugs and explosives, for live people and for dead people.
Service K-9s are known as ‘partners’ by their human handlers, and on the whole they are loved and well-cared for, though sadly not always. Their ‘working life’ is however only 6-9 years, and then they are retired – if they are still alive, that is. What happens to them then? The Daily Mail reported that the UK police destroyed at least 84 of their ‘retired’ dogs in the three years leading up to 2013, in spite of a long list of people waiting to adopt them. One was just a pup, only 4 months old. And the Ministry of Defence destroyed 288 service dogs in the ten years to 2013, including two RAF dogs that guarded Prince William, Brus and Blade, who were destroyed just days after he quit the service.
The point is, service dogs have no say in their ‘working life’, or what happens to them after, any more than do greyhounds or foxhounds who are just fodder for human ‘sport’, dispensable and replaceable commodities. Yet K-9s are routinely put in harm’s way by their human handlers. They are being used against the best interests of their own lives.* We know all too well from the sad story of beautiful Diesel the French police K-9 (pictured here) who was shot by a terrorist in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, what can happen to these trusting and utterly trustworthy animals. It’s just hypocrisy to award them medals for ‘bravery’, and heap praise on them after they’ve been killed ‘in the line of duty’.
So, as always when it comes to the human/animal interface, it’s still all about humans using animals for human purposes. It comes from an assumption that animals’ lives have little or no intrinsic value, and exist for human use. Those lovely golden retrievers deployed to Orlando are being used by humans for humans. Hopefully, they do benefit from their work themselves, if not as much as the humans on whom they lavish their love. Hopefully they have a good doggy life. Compared with most animals being used by humans, they are privileged. But is it stressful for them being shipped wherever their services are needed, all over the States? Is it stressful for them constantly being taken into strange places to meet strange people? We don’t even know if and how they themselves are affected by the emotional distress of the people they go to heal.
And there is another issue. Have these dogs been bred, or purchased from breeders for this task they have been set to? Judging from their webpage all the Lutheran Church’s comfort dogs are golden retrievers. Are any of them rescue dogs? It seems unlikely. How sad is that, when thousands upon thousands of wonderful loving dogs are languishing in rescue centres, and many get put down because there’s no space.
I started to have doubts about that warm glow I experienced reading the ‘dog doctors’ heartwarming story. Should they be ‘working’ for us at all? Should they be used, even if in a seemingly benign way? Is it right, or is it wrong? I don’t know.
The very first time dogs were used by the police here in the UK was in the hunt for Jack the Ripper in the 19th century. Sir Charles Warren then Commissioner of the Met, was being savaged in the press for failing over and over again to catch the serial killer. So hoping to silence the hostile press, he made the decision to get two bloodhounds trained up, and use them to track the murderer from the scene of his latest crime. Unluckily for him, it didn’t quite go to plan. Not only did the hounds fail to find the Ripper, one of them, less than lovingly, bit the Commissioner himself. Then both ran off. They had to launch a police search to find their own dogs. Oops! I imagine Sir Charles was less than eager to open the morning papers over his breakfast toast after that little debacle.
*Neck-break police dog Nero home from hospital German Shepherd Nero jumped over railings in Watford which, unknown to his handler, had a 12ft (3.5m) drop on the other side. His neck was broken in two places. Glad to say, he is recovering well.
Petition to sign: Stop redeploying war dogs for profit
Petition to sign for justice for Totti two year old yellow lab K-9, left in hot car to die by her handler
Support IFAW’s caimpaign for Finn’s Law. Sign message to your MP – Police dog Finn stabbed multiple times in course of duty
30th November 2016 Interesting article about protecting therapy animal welfare, but nothing about their rights. Should Canadian unions take up the cause for working animals? – The Current
Sources and quotes
One Green Planet feature by Lauren Kearney on the K-9 Comfort Dogs
Charities for retired K-9s
In the UK:
In the US:
Saveavet for retired military dogs
Mission K9 Rescue for private sector service dogs