Dogs help Alliance children find their way

Two of April Manning's children, Mac and Lilah, had just survived the mass shooting at Covenant School in Nashville. They needed stability and time to grieve.

So she did everything she could to keep the family dog, Owen, their adorable but sick 15-year-old golden retriever, with them as long as possible. She put off his last visit to the vet, keeping him comfortable as he moved slowly around the house.

Having another dog was the furthest thing from his mind. But a few weeks after the shooting, his children sat him down for an important presentation.

Prepared using a scenario and PowerPoint – “Why we should get (another) dog” – they presented research showing the mental health benefits of having one. This could limit their risk of developing PTSD and help them feel safe. Playing together would get them outside and increase their happiness.

Mrs. Manning and her husband thought about it. Maybe a second dog was possible.

First came Chip, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Then, after Owen succumbed to old age, came Birdie, a miniature poodle and Bernese mountain dog mix. And in welcoming them, the Mannings were far from alone.

In the year since Tennessee's worst school shooting, in which three third graders and three staff members were killed by a former student, more than 40 dogs have been taken in by families of Covenant, a small Christian school of about 120 families.

“I really expected them to help me in cuddly ways, like just cuddling the kids when they're upset.“, » said Ms. Manning. “But I didn’t really expect all the other benefits they would bring.”

Spending time with Covenant families means understanding how they relied on each other, in traditional psychological treatment and mental health counseling, and in their Christian faith to hold them together.

But it's also seeing how often what they needed – a distraction, a protector, a friend who could listen to them, something untouched by the darkness – came from a dog.

Dogs greeted the surviving children at Sandy Hook Elementary School as they returned to a renovated middle school in 2013. A dozen golden retrievers were present in Orlando to provide comfort after the deadly attack at an LGBTQ nightclub in 2016. The therapy dogs who cared for the surviving students in Parkland, Fla., makes the school yearbook.

“Over this period of about 35,000 years, dogs have become incredibly adept at socializing with humans, so they are sensitive to our emotional state,” said Dr. Nancy Gee, who oversees the Center for Interaction. man-animal of the Virginia Commonwealth. University.

Even brief, one-minute interactions with dogs and other animals can reduce the body's stress hormone cortisol, research by Dr. Gee and others showed, offering a possible lifeline to veterans struggling with PTSD and others recovering from trauma.

And on the day of the Covenant shooting, the dogs were immediately there to help. Covey, the principal's dog, was at a nearby fire station, where dozens of staff and students were evacuated. Squid, a retriever mix, was at the Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, helping comfort staff when needed.

When the surviving students were put on a school bus to reunite with their anguished parents, Sgt. Bo, a police dog, sat next to them.

Officer Faye Okert, the Metro Nashville Police Dog Handler, handed out a baseball card with facts about dogs to entertain and comfort the children.

“The focus was on him,” Officer Okert said. “You had a smile on your face after what they had experienced.”

Once families were reunited, counselors gave clear advice: To help your child, get a dog. Or borrow one from a neighbor.

This led several parents to connect with Comfort Connections, a nonprofit comfort dog organization. Jeanene Hupy, the group's founder, saw firsthand how therapy dogs helped students at Sandy Hook and started her own organization once she moved to Nashville.

The group, which oversees a menagerie of golden retrievers, a gentle pit bull and a massive English mastiff, began its work visiting individual homes in the days after the shooting. Then, when the students returned to class a few weeks later, the dogs were there again.

It was something to look forward to, in times when walking through the school doors seemed overwhelming. And when there were painful reminders — a water bottle clattering to the floor, a disturbing history lesson about war, or the absence of a friend — a child might slip away and cuddle a dog.

As Ms. Hupy said, something special happens “when you bring in something that loves you more than it loves itself, which is these guys.”

It was first a joke, then a reality: everyone had a dog.

Fueled by community donations and her own money, Ms. Hupy began connecting multiple parents and puppies. Even for families who could easily afford a new dog, Ms. Hupy and her trainers significantly eased logistical hurdles by finding and training puppies that seemed a perfect fit for each family.

The Anderson girls screamed and cried with joy when they found out they were getting a dog, and have now taught Leo how to flaunt sunglasses and do tricks. The Hobbs children constantly pick up Lady Diana Spencer, often fashionably dressed in a pearl necklace or sweaters.

Dogs are also there in the most difficult moments, like when an ambulance or police car rolls by with its siren blaring or when the memorial ribbons in their neighborhood remind them of what has been lost.

“Sometimes it's just nice to have a giant soft pillow that doesn't need to talk to you and cuddle with it,” said Evangeline Anderson, now 11.

And if dogs chew a shoe or make a mess on a carpet, Ms. Manning said, it's a lesson in how to manage conflicting emotions.

“We still love them and we’re so happy to have them – both things can be true,” she said. “Just like we can be very nervous about going back to school and still be excited about doing it.”

And maybe, the parents realized, it wasn't just for the kids.

Rachel and Ben Gatlin were returning from vacation the day of the shooting. It meant facing the heaviness of survival and knowing that Mr. Gatlin, a history teacher who wore a gun on his ankle for personal protection, could have run toward the shooter that day.

And even though their new dog, Buddy, adapted to their young children's bossiness and developed a penchant for eating socks, he also kept the adults' thoughts focused on the present moment. Taking care of his needs served as a reminder of theirs.

“When you see it working, you’re totally at ease,” Ms. Gatlin said.

Even the school chaplain, Matthew Sullivan, found that the stories of new puppies shared each day in chapel “wearied me out in a good way.”

“I wanted to kind of delve into the experience of all these families,” he said.

Today, Hank, a slightly anxious, floppy-eared Scooby-Doo lookalike, was adopted into his home, which was a little empty without his adult children.

Not everyone has a dog.

For the McLeans, the solution was two rabbits.

“It’s an incredible distraction from their reality,” Abby McLean said of her children, cupping her hands to imitate a rabbit on her shoulder. “I find myself doing it from time to time too.”

Another family added Ginny, a turtle with a possible lifespan of seven decades, to the mix of animals already in their home.

“Having lost people early in life, there was something that resonated with me, which was that there was a longevity, a turtle,” said Phil Shay, who chose the turtle with his 12-year-old daughter. years. Never.

However, dogs far outnumber other pets. And every day, they can make a small difference.

The first night George, Jude, and Amos Bolton tried to sleep alone without their parents after the shooting, the slightest groan from the ice maker or dryer had been too much. Their mother, Rachel, who had said she loved dogs, but not at home, soon agreed to take in Hudson, a miniature Goldendoodle puppy with doe eyes and wild curls.

“We didn’t know dogs could bring comfort to people,” said Jude, now 10, his hands ruffling Hudson’s ears. And when Hudson came home, he added, “He's been nothing but comforting us ever since.”

It's now easier to sleep through the night, safe and secure, knowing Hudson is there.

“All my friends joke, they say, ‘I can’t believe you like dogs now,’” Ms Bolton said. But this dog, she added, “healed this family.”

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