When news broke of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, Amy Kobs had the same response as millions of people around the world – grief, distress, fear – and as an elementary school counselor, she knew these emotions can be hard to cope with.
“I thought we should have a program in our community to help kids and adults who are having a tragic experience,” said Kobs, counselor at Sand Lake Elementary in Holmen.
Already the owner of certified therapy dog, Odin, she approached the Coulee Region Humane Society about taking Odin’s comforting skills a step further, in the form of a crisis response program.
Today, Kobs and 7-year-old Odin, a yellow Labrador, are one of 15 teams in the CRHS Crisis Response group, ready to respond within hours to crisis situations at hospitals, schools and other facilities in the CESA 4 and Winona/La Crescent areas.
“He goes to a school when there is a death of a student. He goes to the Family and Children’s Center when a child is nervous to talk to a therapist about stressful things or kids that need to talk to a defense attorney about a bad situation,” Kobs said. “Every situation is unique, and in every situation I’ve walked away thinking the therapy dog has made a positive impact.”
After being notified of the death of a teacher two years ago, Kobs and Odin were at the school the next morning to support students and staff, and also attended the memorial service.
“We let the children hug him and pet him and talk to him,” Kobs said. “The kids having a really hard time took his leash and walked him around the school. It provided a sense of relief and normalcy in a situation the kids aren’t used to.”
In addition to being on call, Odin does hospital cheer visits and reading programs. He also accompanies Kobs to school twice a week, resting on a wicker couch between one-on-one sessions with students and visits to classrooms to teach about compassion and healthy relationships.
“He knows his job is to be calm and relaxed in his environment,” Kobs said. “He has the perfect energy level to work as a therapy dog both in the school and in crises. He’s seen as a supportive tool … kids may be crying or very angry, and Odin gives them a lick on the face and it stops. It flips that brain switch from ‘I’m frustrated’ to ‘Oh, there’s Odin.'”
In order to be part of the crisis response program, dogs must complete the certification process and be active in pet therapy around the community. Owners are educated about confidentiality, mandated reporting, reading a situation and adjusting for a person’s age, personality and comfort level with dogs.
“We really want dogs who are in good tune with their partner,” Kobs said. “They need to maintain that sense of calm and also provide a sense of calm in a situation where there may be a strong emotion. The dogs serve physiologically, socially and emotionally.”
Kobs is cognizant of the stress such responsibility puts on Odin, and makes sure he has enough time for the release of just being the family dog.
“After a whole day at school, he’ll need two hours at home in the bedroom and the quiet to take a break from the emotional strain and the brain work,” Kobs said.
The emotion is strong for Kobs as well, who didn’t realize how great an impact the program would have on others and herself. Kobs has seen Odin coax children out of hiding spaces and others bury their faces in his fur to cry. She recalls another dog on the team who comforted the siblings of a child who died of cancer, and one who greets an anxious child at school every morning.
“The reciprocity – compassion given to others and compassion shown back – they know ‘(the dog) is here to comfort me. I’m having a hard time,’ and no words are even necessary.”