The Healing Presence of Crisis Response Canines

The Healing Presence of Crisis Response Canines

When it comes to providing their services to personal or community crisis events, Crisis Response Canines has gone the extra mile, literally and figuratively.

Andrea Hering, the president and a co-founder of the New Jersey-based nonprofit, says that situations with heightened circumstances led to additional, specialized training for everyone involved beyond their existing therapy dog experience.

“We found that organizations were asking us [to have our dogs] in a little more complex environment and more unpredictable environments — [for example], after a tragedy with shootings,” Hering explained. “We realized with these unpredictable environments that our handlers needed to be just as well trained as the dogs, and that’s how we evolved into the crisis response team. So our dogs are very well trained, but then our handlers now have additional training beyond a therapy dog handler.”

Crisis Response Canines handlers undergo background checks, must complete a series of nationally recognized certifications and commit to ongoing training in such areas as psychological and mental health first aid, according to the CRC’s mission statement. As for the dogs, American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certification and crisis working dog certification are among their qualifications and training.

Crisis Response Canines co-founder John Hunt (left) in El Paso, Texas.

A majority of Crisis Response Canines’ handlers and their personal dogs are based in South Jersey, says Hering. The organization has provided support related to various situations in its home state, among them the aftermath of the November 2019 shooting at a high school football game in Pleasantville, New Jersey, that injured at least three people.

However, the CRC’s presence and reach extend beyond the Garden State, with representatives in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Florida and Virginia ready to respond to critical incidents across the country. In recent years, Crisis Response Canines teams have been to Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and other cities following mass shootings.

Different breeds for different needs

Within the CRC’s 20 deployment teams are 15 dog breeds, and they include a Golden Retriever, Chihuahua and Great Dane. The most famous among them has to be Gunther, a Rottweiler belonging to co-founder John Hunt and the winner of the 2019 AKC Humane Fund Service Award for Canine Excellence in the Therapy Dog category.

“It’s important to have a variety because people relate to each type of dog differently,” Hering said. “Depending on what kind of areas we’re servicing, some children are afraid of pit bulls because of their knowledge [of that breed], so a Golden Retriever might be a better fit.”

About half of the CRC dogs are rescues, among them Rusty, Hering’s Golden Retriever mix.

Rusty in Parkland, Florida, after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

“As soon as I met Rusty, I knew he was special,” she said. “I do believe we are all extremely fortunate when we find the ‘right’ dog with the temperament and qualities to be able to do this type of work. It takes a special canine that has the ability to remain calm in stressful environments… and has the love of people regardless of their breed.”

Crisis Response Canines has two team levels. CRC Operational Deployment teams respond to national crisis events, with dogs that are “the best of the best,” says Hering.

“They are extremely reliable, they handle stress very well and they travel well,” she added. “They’re very seasoned dogs. We’ve tested them out on planes, trains, ferries. The way these dogs handle stress is unbelievable.”

Normally, CRC has four to six teams deploy to an incident. “That allows us to work in pairs, rotate the dogs allowing them to rest, or split up and visit two different venues,” said Hering.

CRC Comfort teams, meanwhile, have dogs that are “working their way up to become a crisis response dog,” Hering says. They serve as the foundation for community events and visits to schools, hospitals and nursing homes, according to the CRC mission statement.

“When we’re not on deployment, we do a lot of work [that is] not stressful and more in line of just being with a therapy dog,” said Peggy Breuninger, a volunteer liaison who described her role as “a little bit of everything.”

Crisis Response Canines is looking to expand its volunteer ranks across the nation, with an emphasis on adding members in Texas, Florida and Colorado, Hering says. Click here to find out how you can become involved.

At top: Crisis Response Canines president Andrea Hering.

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