The Unseen Heroes: How Crisis Response Dogs Mend Broken Spirits

In the wake of tragedy and disaster, communities often find themselves submerged in grief and confusion, struggling to navigate the aftermath.

Amidst the chaos, a beacon of hope and solace comes in a form not many would expect. Dogs. These extraordinary animals, alongside their handlers, play a pivotal role in healing and offering emotional support to those affected.

The Oso Landslide: A Community in Mourning

The Oso landslide on March 22, 2014, marked one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in Washington state’s history. The landslide claimed 43 lives and devastated the community, leaving a mark that will not soon be forgotten.

In the aftermath of the Oso landslide, the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, known for providing trauma relief to first responders and community members responding to a disaster, was called upon. This organization, established following the April 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, invited Raquel, along with Crisis Response Dogs Pickles and Bungee, to provide support.

Lackey coordinated a team of 45 certified crisis response canine teams, first deployed to Snohomish County in the wake of the mudslide. Bungee and Pickles dedicated over 200 hours to the relief efforts, offering solace to workers returning from the debris fields and supporting families alongside chaplains at emergency operation centers. Their presence in the Arlington and Darrington communities underscored the specialized training these dogs received, enabling them to connect with people traumatized by the disaster.

These crisis response K-9s’ positive impact on children and adults was significant, helping them process their experiences and emotions. Lackey highlighted the unique role these dogs played in her article “Crisis Dog Teams Build Bridges,” where she shared a poignant moment: “A woman walked into the Community Center in Darrington, visibly upset…she saw my chocolate lab, Bungee, stopped in her tracks melted to the floor and found comfort in his thick fur.”

This encounter, in which the woman finds comfort in Bungee and eventually expresses her concerns about her missing children, exemplifies the profound connection between humans and animals in times of crisis. Such stories underscore the invaluable contribution of K-9s not only in search and rescue operations, where their skills in navigating muddy terrains were unparalleled but also in the healing process of those affected by the tragedy.

The Journey of a Handler: Raquel Lackey

Behind every successful comfort dog is a dedicated handler, and Raquel Lackey’s journey into the world of Animal-assisted Crisis Response is as inspiring as it is impactful. A certified public accountant by trade, Lackey’s venture into this field was motivated by a desire to give back to the community, a sentiment fostered by her professional mentors.

Her partnership with her dogs, from the late Pickles to Bungee and now Ruffles, is founded on a profound understanding of these canine companions’ therapeutic and crisis response potential.

The extensive training and certification process for handlers and dogs is documented in the Animal-Assisted Crisis Response National Standards and adhered to closely by the nationwide organization HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, of which Raquel has been a member certified with each of her K-9s for over ten years.

This commitment to education and training ensures that dogs like Bungee, Pickles, and Ruffles can provide comfort and a bridge to healing for those they serve. It’s a testament to the belief that sometimes, the best support comes on four legs and offers unconditional love.

Seattle Mountain Rescue: Saving Lives Locally

The devastating Oso landslide and the efforts of Raquel Lackey of Seattle Mountain Rescue, which is based in North Bend, and her canine companions exemplify the profound impact these dogs have on human lives during times of crisis.

Lackey was invited to join Seattle Mountain Rescue as part of their resiliency team in 2020 based on her experience and work with Pickles. She has since stepped into the role of treasurer and is happy to have Bungee and Ruffles continue in Pickles’s pawprints.

Members of SMR’s team have benefitted from the comfort of having these dogs nearby. The new girl Ruffles stepped over Bungee to greet SMR Teammate Peter back to base after a body recovery of 17-year-old. Peter, who is a “Cat Person,” was won over by Ruffles. She also spent time with the other hikers while they waited for their families to arrive.

Seattle Mountain Rescue is the first SAR team across the U.S. to incorporate specially trained AACR canines into their team. Says Lackey, “We are all human beings first, and the better we can take care of ourselves, the better we can perform when called.”  

Ruffles: Continuing the Legacy

Ruffles, a 3-year-old Labrador, is stepping up to continue the work started by her predecessors. Trained by Lackey and born from the same breeder, Diane Sullenberger of Harlequin Labradors, Ruffles embodies the qualities of curiosity, affection, and intelligence that make for an effective crisis response dog.

Ruffles’ recent work includes providing support to Washington state troopers mourning the loss of a colleague and raising awareness for the wellness of 911 dispatchers, often the unsung heroes in crises.

Ruffles, alongside Lackey, participated in the “911 Goes to Olympia” event, which aimed to educate legislators and the public about the critical role of dispatchers in emergency response and the need for comprehensive support for their well-being.

This initiative underscores the broader mission of crisis response dogs and their handlers: to bring healing and awareness to all facets of crisis response, ensuring that no one, from the front lines to the emergency call centers, is left to bear the burden alone.

The stories of the Oso landslide and the ongoing work of Raquel Lackey and her team of comfort dogs underscore a powerful message: healing begins with support and compassion in the aftermath of a disaster.

These canine companions represent more than just pets; they are trained professionals capable of offering solace in times of need. As communities continue to face challenges, the role of crisis response dogs remains invaluable, reminding us that hope can often be found in a dog’s gentle nuzzle.

~To support Seattle Mountain Rescue and help them fund the dogs and many other things, visit their donation page here. Even if you aren’t a mountain hiker, you likely know one or have a family member who is and who may need their help in the future.

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