Trauma exists in all facets of life. It has been around since the beginning of time, and no one is immune to its immense pressure. Over the years researchers have sought ways in which to lessen, “cure”, or assist those that have inevitably fallen victim to it. One of the ways in which researchers and the like have found success in dealing with trauma is with canines (K-9). The use of K-9s for assisting with human calamities has been around since ancient Greeks documented the use of domesticated animals for therapeutic purposes. In 1860, Florence Nightingale also wrote about the use of animals in reducing anxiety in humans. Documented research has shown that animal and human interactions can have a positive impact both physiologically and psychologically. A study in 2003, found a 37% reduction in fear and an 18% reduction in anxiety. (Barker et al, 2003) Interaction between humans and dogs, can induce oxytocin release in both humans and dogs and generate effects such as decreased cortisol levels and blood pressure. (Odendaal and Meintjes, 2003; Miller et al., 2009; Handlin et al., 2011) Anxiety levels can be extremely high among people who are on the spectrum, and the presence of a service dog has been shown to reduce cortisol levels by up to 10%, which is statistically significant. (Rousseau, 2023) As a result of these positive results conducted through research, it is no wonder that K-9s have begun to be utilized in response to critical incidents.
Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) began to take hold in the 1980s. AAI is a broad term used to describe the utilization of various species of animals in diverse manners beneficial to humans. (Hunt, 2022) Animal Assisted Crisis Response (AACR) has begun to be used for such critical incidents as natural disasters, terrorism, mass shootings, and line-of-duty deaths. AACR employs highly trained and certified teams of K-9s and handlers who provide comfort, stress relief, emotional support, and crisis intervention services to people affected by crises and disasters in complex, unpredictable environments surrounding traumatic events. (National Standards Committee for Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, 2010) AACR Teams have been established in conjunction with the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF). AACR seeks to combat the acute stress that arises from a traumatic incident. Decreasing the stress response can help alleviate the potential for ongoing mental health issues. Decreasing stress relies on balancing the autonomic nervous system out of its sympathetic-activation priority. (Rousseau, 2023)
AACR teams deploy in response to a wide range of potential trauma-inducing situations. In New Jersey, an organization that has successfully combined both Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and AACR is Crisis Response Canines (CRC). Critical Incident Stress Management is a comprehensive, integrated, systematic, and multi-component approach to managing traumatic incidents. (CRC’s mission is to provide strength, comfort, and emotional support to individuals, families, communities, and first responders experiencing traumatic emotions in the aftermath of critical incidents. CRC seeks to provide post-incident stress support thus aiding with the recovery process for those impacted by distressing and shocking events or those countering the effects of cumulative events. (Hunt, 2022) The K-9s and handlers go through extensive training and certifications in order to join the team. AACR teams can be used, for example, to establish rapport, build therapeutic bridges, normalize the experience, and act as a calming agent or as a catalyst for physical movement. (Greenbaum, 2006)
In March of 2022, the Rhode Island State Police joined this movement, and Gus, the Goldendoodle, was welcomed into the ranks with open arms. Gus is handled by a member of our Special Victim’s Unit. The Special Victim’s Unit investigates sexual assault, abuse, and other sensitive cases involving children, developmentally disabled, and older residents, as well as domestic violence, missing children, sexual exploitation of children, and human trafficking cases. Gus has provided a necessary distraction from the rigors of police work, for me and the victims we encounter. Gus is a sweet and gentle boy whose handler I worked closely with when he was at the Lincoln Woods Barracks. Gus brings smiles when they are tough to come by and I have inadvertently taught him some bad habits. I must remember that he is a K-9 working dog, but sometimes this is a difficult task. #IloveGus
Barker S. B., Pandurangi A. K., Best A. M. (2003). Effects of animal-assisted therapy on patients’ anxiety, fear, and depression before ECT. J. ECT 19, 38–44. 10.1097/00124509-200303000-00008
Chapter 4: Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.
Greenbaum SD. (2006) Introduction to working with Animal Assisted Crisis Response animal handler teams. Int J Emerg Ment Health.2006 Winter;8(1):49-63. PMID: 16573252.
Handlin, L., Hydbring-Sandberg, E., Nilsson, A., Ejdebäck, M., Jansson, A., and Uvnäs-Moberg, K. (2011). Short-term interaction between dogs and their owners – effects on oxytocin, cortisol, insulin and heart rate – an exploratory study. Anthrozoos 24, 301–315. doi: 10.2752/175303711X13045914865385
Hunt, J. D. (2022). Animal-assisted interventions- A brief guide. ICISF. https://icisf.org/animal-assisted-interventions-a-brief-guide/
Miller, S. C., Kennedy, C., DeVoe, D., Hickey, M., Nelson, T., and Kogan, L. (2009). An examination of changes in oxytocin levels in men and women before and after interaction with a bonded dog. Anthrozoös 22, 31–42. doi: 10.2752/175303708X390455
National Standards Committee for Animal-Assisted Crisis Response. (2010). AnimalAssisted Crisis Response National Standards. Retrieved from http://hopeaacr.org/ wp-content/uploads/2010/03/AACRNationalStandards7Mar10.pdf
Odendaal, J. S., and Meintjes, R. A. (2003). Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs. Vet. J. 165, 296–301. doi: 10.1016/S1090-0233(02)00237-X
Rousseau, Danielle, PhD, LMHC. (2023). Module 3: Neurobiology of Trauma. MET CJ 720: Trauma and Crisis Intervention. Boston University MET Summer 2. https://learn.bu.edu/bbcswebdav/courses/23sum2metcj720so2/course/module3/allpages.htm