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Lending a Helping Paw

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Date
July 2015

Written by
Lauren Hunsberger

Photography by
Michael Matti

Raquel Lackey with Pickles the dog

Less than 24 hours after the 2014 mudslide occurred in Oso, Raquel Lackey and one of her two crisis-response dogs, Bungee and Pickles, were on the scene. They stayed on-site for over a month working the disaster, averaging four to six hours a day. But what exactly can sweet-natured Labradors do to help during a disaster of that magnitude?

“I’ll never forget one day I was headed to the car with Pickles, and we saw some search and rescue workers sitting on the tailgate of a truck, one had his elbows on his legs, eyes cast down looking at the dirt. He kept glancing up at Pickles; he did it three times,” Lackey says. “We walked over, and I said, ‘Hello, do you want a Pickles kiss?’ Pickles surprised me and jumped up on the tailgate and leaned against him.”

This particular rescue worker had driven up with his team from Sacramento, California to assist with the disaster relief effort, and Lackey says for five days they had been returning over and over again to search the depths of the mud. With comfort in familiarity of the dog’s presence, the worker opened up to Lackey about how hard the experience was for him.

“He said to me, ‘This is our last day, I’m exhausted and I’m not looking forward to going back out in the mud to finish the shift. I have a black Lab at home, and I’m really missing my family.’ We started chatting about his family and what they did, and pretty soon a couple of other guys gathered around; people started smiling. Eventually, the guy with Pickles said, ‘Thank you, Pickles. I really didn’t want to go out into that mud, but you’ve given me the strength to go back out, finish my shift and know that I’ve given it my all.’”

Unknowingly, the rescue worker perfectly explained the exact reason why Lackey and about 45 other dog-handler teams were deployed by disaster authorities to the scene. Not to sniff out survivors; not to carry supplies. The dogs, under the care and guidance of Lackey and other volunteer handlers, were there solely to provide hope to those dealing with the seemingly hopeless situation.

Bungee the DogLackey, a Washington native and CPA by profession, has been volunteering with her dogs for many years now primarily with HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response and Reading with Rover. With these organizations, Lackey, Pickles and Bungee went through extensive training. Specifically, they were educated in first aid, mental health, disaster stress management, and how to follow the incident command structures of local law and emergency management authorities. But one of the most fascinating aspects of the training, Lackey says, was gaining an understanding of why dogs can be such valuable assets during disasters and how their instinctual responses differ so much from humans. The kinds of skills dogs can provide, she says, are unparalleled.

“When we as humans go through a traumatic experience, over 132 chemicals dump into our bodies naturally,” Lackey says. “Our dogs—all trained crisis-response dogs—can actually smell those chemicals, and they can sense the level of distress on a much greater level.”

To this extent, the dogs are far superior when it comes to picking up on distress signals than humans. “It’s our natural tendency to gravitate toward the person who’s visibly upset, the one who’s crying or screaming or whatever. But our dogs are smart enough to know maybe there’s another person in the room who needs the attention much more. Maybe they’re sitting in the corner and they are really shut down.” It’s Lackey’s job to then trust her dogs’ instincts.

And this special skill set reaches much further than just dealing with natural disaster settings. Among other tragedies, Lackey and her dogs were also recently deployed to both the Marysville-Pilchuck High School and the Seattle Pacific University shootings. Like the Oso disaster, they were on scene within hours of the event to comfort the students, parents, teachers and counselors who had just endured the tragedies. She cites one specific student who found great comfort in recounting the details of what she saw, heard and felt during the horrific event to Pickles, who sat by her and acted as a nonjudgmental, safe confidant.

But even when they aren’t called to a disaster, Lackey, Pickles and Bungee spend their spare time providing comfort to others. Most often they participate in the Reading with Rover program, in which the dogs sit with children as they read to them. “Kids who read to a dog progress 12 percent faster than kids who don’t because of the benefits; first and foremost the dog is nonjudgmental,” Lackey says.

Lackey has also spent a great deal of time in hospitals, specifically the emergency room and intensive care units at St. Francis and the mental health ward of Overlake Hospital, working to help heal and bring joy to people with a range of problems. “When you go through a traumatic experience or are having issues, your eyes normally cast down and you become isolated. There is a natural tendency to shut down and not make eye contact with other humans because you want to self-preserve. The dogs are right at that level where your eyes cast down,” Lackey says. “Plus, many of us grew up with dogs, so they provide a sense of safety. They don’t ask anything from us, and no matter what—no matter how tragic or scary an event has been—it’s still OK to smile at a dog. Once you smile at a dog, that dog has physically changed your brain and even just that brief moment of presence helps the body heal.”

Lackey is humble about the work she does and about the hundreds of volunteer hours she puts in each year; in fact, she prefers to talk about the dogs. But when pushed to discuss what it is in her personality that makes her go time after time to places where people are in dire need of comfort and support, she simply says, “I like people, and I have an ability to be calm when crises are happening, and if I can share my trained dog with someone who’s hurting and provide comfort, that’s easy, right?” Lackey also notes that the support from her husband and family make all the hours she puts in possible.

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