Emotional Support Animals and Homicide Survivors

When in crisis, homicide survivors often think of formal or informal mental health intervention as our “go-to.”  But we should also consider the power of animals to help – by themselves or in addition to other forms of aid.

Human-animal bonds have been strong ever since we lived in caves.  If we ever need a refresher, just go back to the painful lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina when FEMA forcefully separated hurricane victims from their pets. Today there is a “New Orleans Model” for communities to care for and reunite pet owners with their dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, rodents and turtles. In fact, there is a federal law, passed in 2006, called the PETS Act. For states, cities and counties to receive federal funding for disaster relief, their plants must address the needs of household pets and service animals before, during and after a major disaster. To date, 30 states have complied (see map). Among other things, this federal law allows FEMA to provide funding to communities for the creation, operation and maintenance of pet-friendly emergency shelters (which excludes hotels and motels).

Animals can speed up adjustment following a crisis of any magnitude. This applies to already-owned pets, equestrian therapy, or with a new, professionally trained emotional support service animal.

A crisis like the homicide of a loved one taxes us emotionally, physically, socially, and cognitively.  Pets often answer the call for help.

Socially

Pets of any kind provide companionship. Social isolation is known to raise the risk of Type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Our animals respond to our presence and become part of our routine.  They simply help our apartment or house feel less “vacant.”  TikTok and YouTube are social media sites loaded with examples of smiling pet donkeys, explorative rabbits, busy ferrets, loyal goats, singing parrots, graceful fish, observant lizards, and even slithery snakes who bring a smile and sense of calm to their proud owners. 

Physically

Pets spur health benefits.  Studies show that pets  (especially critters with fur) reduce blood pressure, cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels.  They also lower cortisol, a major stress hormone.  Scientists at Washington State University found that petting a dog for just 10 minutes had a significant impact.

As a group, pet owners tend to eat healthier and are less likely to smoke cigarettes.  According to the HCA Houston Healthcare Association, dog owners spend twice as much time walking per week than people without dogs.  And time spent walking outside means more vitamin D and helps prevent brittle bones. They lower our risk of death from disease. According to the American Heart Association, dog owners who live alone have a reduced risk of death following a heart attack or stroke.

Cognitively

Responsible dog ownership forces humans to have interests beyond their own situation and to feel safer in public.  Pets help people stay in the present rather than pull toward the future or ruminate about the past.  The mere presence of a pet forces us to think about their needs and wants.

Emotionally

In addition to pets, there are also professionally trained emotional support dogs who are capable of interrupting panic attacks, flashbacks, and suicidal thinking.  They do this by sensing (through smell) the intense emotions in their humans and nudging them, thereby interrupting their train of thought.  They may lay on top of the person in crisis or literally block them from an escalating situation.  These service animals are trained to wake up their owners from debilitating nightmares and alert them to someone approaching to deescalate their hypervigilance.  They can even bring medication if requested.

I met Miranda Lambert in Austin during a speaking engagement. (No, not that Miranda Lambert!) This fluffy little dog had the fancy, unofficial title of “Ms. Crisis K9.”  Miranda is owned by Gordy Powell of Georgia Clean who owns a biorecovery cleanup company.  She comforts trauma survivors in the early hours of the tragedy.  This sweet, blue-eyed dog even has her own business card and website https://mirandalambertk9.org.

The night I met Miranda I was treated to a wonderful dinner by Gordy and other guests at a very upscale restaurant.  (He was thanking me for my speech on ethics in bio-recovery.) Amanda immediately sauntered over and slept calmly on my feet under the table linen for the entire meal.  Did she sense I was a homicide survivor? She melted my heart. That’s her specialty.

Mass Casualty Disasters and Dogs

The benefits of service animals extend to supporters of mass casualties.  During the Pulse Nightclub massacre, twelve golden retrievers were welcomed to Orlando to comfort the families of those killed and the medical examiners who had the grueling task of identifying the deceased.  The furry rescue workers also attended vigils, toured hospitals, and accompanied victims to their funeral service.  Wherever they showed up the mood changed from tense to composed.

The FBI employs Wally (a golden lab) and Gio a black lab, to relax people at mass casualty events where emotions run high.  “…the dogs have worked a certain type of magic with people under a great deal of stress,” so reports Kathryn Turman, Assistant Director Office for Victim Assistance FBI.

And, as with Pulse, the Victim Services Division of the FBI reports it isn’t just the homicide survivors and mass casualty survivors who benefit from the dogs, but so do the FBI agents and other first responders.  The mere presence of these four-footed companions offers a comforting distraction, a small life raft in a sea of disaster.

Here is Dolce, the FBI’s first therapy dog.

For more information contact the following trainers:

Assistance Dogs International  https://assistancedogsinternational.org/

This is a nonprofit coalition of organizations that seeks to improve service dog training worldwide.

K9s For Warriors  https://k(sforwarriors.org/

This is the nation’s largest provider of service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD to help them lead a life of dignity and independence.

PTSD – Service Dogs for America  https://servicedogsforamerica.org/ptsd/

Works to reduce traumatic stress for both military and non-military individuals.

PTSD Service Dog Training  https://dogtrainingelite.com/

This organization does not provide dogs, it helps owners train their own to become a psychiatric/PTSD service animal.

For more detailed information and for other resources, please refer to my book What Now? Navigating the Aftermath of Homicide and Suicide, available now on Amazon.

Click this Amazon link:   https://www.amazon.com/What-Now-Navigating-Aftermath-Homicide-ebook/dp/B0BXND9DQR

I’m Jan Canty. Psychologist, author, podcast host, speaker…  and homicide survivor.

I am passionate about finding ways to support and help other so-called “homicide or suicide survivors.”

No one should have to go through this kind of loss… but if you do, I want you to know… YOU ARE NOT ALONE! 

You aren’t crazy. It’s not your imagination! Society does not know how to comfort us. Fortunately, we know how to comfort one another.

Check out my books and get tools and resources to help you or someone you love!