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Written by Cynthia Long, Managing Editor, RedCross.org

 


 

 

 

 

GroundO

Delta

 

dogs
Tikva gives a hug to a WTC emergency worker as handler Cindy Ehlers, left, explains the benefits of dog therapy.

Tikva, a 2-year-old Keeshound, and Kate, a three-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, are part of the Hope Crisis and Response Team working with the American Red Cross to help bring emotional support to thousands of people affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Supported by the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to improving human health through service and therapy animals,” Tikva and Kate are two of four dogs working in New York City with their handlers.

Cindy Ehlers, 43, from Eugene, Ore., heads up the Hope Crisis and Response Team. Ehlers started working with a therapy dog in May of 1998 after the deadly shooting by a student of Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. She and her Keeshound, named Bear, who has since passed away, made weekly visits for a year to help the community recover from the shooting.

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Firefighters share their lunch and a few laughs with Tikva and Kate at a Red Cross respite center.

On their first visit, Cindy and Bear went into the library at Thurston High. “She worked without a leash and mingled among many, many crying students,” Ehlers said, “but she stayed with the five students that none of the counselors seemed to be able to reach. They were too withdrawn.” Ehlers explained that traumatized people emit a scent that dogs immediately pick up on. She said they can smell fear and distress, and that Bear knew these students weren’t coping as well as the others.

“She followed the same pattern with each student - she’d go sit next to them, wiggle a bit, make a funny noise, move closer to them, and then make and hold eye contact,” Ehlers said. “Once she made eye contact, they’d open up. Bear nestled up against one girl, who turned, looked into her eyes and immediately grabbed her around the neck in a hug and started sobbing.”

Ehlers’ partner in New York is Tikva (pronounced teek-vah) and she and yellow lab Kate provide comfort and a much-needed release for grieving people affected by the Sept. 11 attack.

The city of New York arranged for a boat to transport families along with Red Cross grief and spiritual counselors to the wreckage of the World Trade Center as a way to provide the families with some closure by enabling them to witness the scene with their own eyes. The boat departs from the Family Assistance Center, established by Major Guilliani on Pier 94 overlooking the Hudson River, and drops the families a few blocks from ground zero.

Ehlers, Tikva’s handler, and Pat Dickenson, Kate’s handler, have boarded the boat with their dogs to adopt a family to comfort for the journey. Once aboard, both women said that either the dogs adopt the families or the families adopt the dogs. The handlers simply stand back and let it happen.

“On each boat there are between 50 and 70 people, and I usually play it by ear to see what happens,” Ehlers said. “Yesterday we were walking down the aisle when a woman reached down and grabbed Tikva. She buried her face in her fur and started crying.”

The woman’s husband, who worked in the World Trade Center, had once surprised the family with a Merle Collie, which is bluish gray and looks very much like a Keeshound. “He loved dogs,” she said, asking the name of Ehler’s dog. When Ehller’s told her it was Tikva, she gasped, “That means hope. I’m Jewish, and Tikva is Hebrew for hope.” Ehlers said that the woman was convinced that Tikva had traveled all the way from Oregon to help her deal with the tragedy and bring her hope that she would be able to come to terms with what happened.

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Tikva, the furry Keeshound, and Kate, the friendly yellow lab, work long days to lift spirits at Ground Zero.

Down at ground zero, where dust swirls, generators drone and the clang of metal against concrete rings in the air, the mood is somber and the work is painstaking and grueling. Hundreds of workers take breaks at Red Cross respite centers, where they can sit down with a cup of fresh coffee or a plate of hot food, relax in front of a television or get first aid from a Red Cross nurse. On Monday, at the St. Johns University respite center, they got to visit with Tikva and Kate.

“What kind of dog is that?” said one firefighter, reaching down to pet Tikva, a short, gray and black furry ball of a dog. “I have two labs at home,” said another, stroking Kate’s golden head.

“The dogs have been providing a lot of emotional support, especially in the days right after the attack,” said Ehlers. “It’s so hard for those guys down at the perimeter. It’s their job to rescue, and the whole world is watching, but they haven’t been able to do it. Every time they can’t rescue someone, they grieve, and now they’re just feeling helpless.”

The workers struggle to detach themselves emotionally to do their jobs, but the dogs help them get in touch again. The dogs remind them of home, of family, and of happier times. “Over and over again I’ve heard the men say, ‘that dog made my day,’” Ehlers said. “They pet Tikva and say how soft she is when all they’ve felt is iron or cement.”

The firefighters usually ask to feed the dogs, and Ehlers always agrees, understanding their need to help. "They're always asking me, 'Can I feed her or give her some water? Does she need anything?'" Ehlers said. "I let them feed her awful things — hamburgers, fries, cookies — because it allows the workers to feel helpful again, at least for a moment."

Even at the end of the day, after Tikva and Kate have been walking throughout Lower Manhattan to bring people comfort and hope, the dogs don’t stop working. “When we get back to our hotel, I sometimes have to go through emotional detox,” said Kate’s handler, Pat Dickenson. “While Cindy is in the shower, I’ll just sit on my bed and cry a bit. Before you know it, Kate is at my side licking my hand and Tikva has jumped into my lap. You just can’t help but smile.”

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New York City, October 2, 2001 It’s lunchtime at a Red Cross Respite Center near ground zero at 101 Murray Street, and dozens of New York City firefighters and police officers line up to receive a hot, heaping plate of beef stew, chicken and rice or salmon with mashed potatoes and green beans. They stand quietly, their expressions weary, until they see Tikva and Kate scampering over. Some of the emergency crew members kneel down, holding their hands out to the dogs and whistling. Others call, “here, pooch!” Everyone grins.