Hope Dogs in the EOC: Comfort in times of crisis

EMScholar Exercises

This is part of a series about the largest disaster exercise conducted in Washington State history called Cascadia Rising, 2016. See the other blogs here.

You know immediately when they arrive because the whole room gravitates toward their wake.

“Did you see the Hope Dogs?” someone asks me.

“What are Hope Dogs?” I ask heading toward a growing crowd in a corner. Oscar and Pickles are therapy dogs who work for the non-profit organization Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (Hope AACR). They are part of an elite team that not only has animal-assisted therapy certification and experience but are also screened for suitability in a crisis response environment. Teams receive extensive training in Incident Command System (a standardized way we organize crisis response), first aid/CPR, emotional first aid, crisis communication, and special stress management techniques for work in the field along side first responders.

Founded in September 2001, Hope Dogs provided emotional support victims at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks. Hope Dogs are called out nationally to attend policeman memorials, Operation Purple camps (for military kids), and natural disasters. They work closely in conjunction with FEMA and the Red Cross and were happy to practice with us at Cascadia Rising.

Molly Fischer (right) with Oscar and Raquel Lackey (left) with Pickles

Molly Fischer sits comfortably on the floor with a gentle Oscar. He gives me soulful eyes until I pat him. Hope Dogs first began as emotional support for victims of natural disasters but gradually, the organization began to see a need to support the responders themselves. Fischer started working with FEMA staff during the 2014 Oso, Washington landslide. “It’s such a rewarding thing when you walk into a building where everything is so tense [like that]” she says, “When we walk into a room, it’s all smiles.” She invites another person to pet Oscar. “Snohomish [county] was the smoothest-operating EOC because of the dogs” she says proudly. They were able to relax and focus on the response. “Dogs are amazing at that.”

Pickles Oso
Pickles and another Hope Dog look across the valley to the Oso landslide. Pic courtesy of Cal EOC.

Pickles and handler Raquel Lackey join us. They were at Oso too a day after the landslide while search and rescue were still happening. She describes how exhausting it was for the dogs to sponge up all that emotional stress. They need a break every other day and then a longer break after about three weeks. They never use dogs under 2 years old because it can be too stressful for the puppies and they only use dogs who are highly tolerant of new things and stressed people. After, Oso, she took the dogs to the beach for a couple days were there was no one around.


Still… she says, they can get depressed if they don’t work for a while.
“How do you know when it’s time to go back to work?” I ask
“They’ll tell you. This one,” she nudges a tail-wagging Pickles, “will approach people on the street for pets” she laughs.

I wonder aloud why the dogs need practice when they seem to be such naturals. “Our minds know this is an exercise but our bodies don’t” Fischer tells me. Lackey nods. “You’ll notice the dogs can identify who’s the most stressed.” Oscar puts his head in someone’s lap. Both he and the person seem grateful for the head scratches.


If you’d like to support these intrepid therapy dogs and the volunteers who give up their time to support first responders and victims, do visit their page to see all the different ways you can help.



Resiliency Quiz

This quiz has been adapted from Maddi and Khoshaba’s Resiliency at Work and is meant to serve as a companion to this post. Read it! It’s a good one.

Part 1: Answer either “mostly yes” or “mostly no” to each question.

  • Do you wake up eager to go to work?
  • Despite fond memories of the past, do you look forward to a changing future?
  • Do you feel that your input makes a difference in how things turn out?
  • Do you rely on yourself to figure out how to solve problems?
  • Do you consider change to be a normal and inevitable part of life?
  • Do you see yourself as trying to grow and do better?

Part 2: Answer either “mostly yes” or “mostly no” to each question.

  • Do you feel most comfortable with clearly defined tasks?
  • Do you feel most comfortable with little change in your tasks/environment?
  • Do you put problems out of your mind in order to feel calm and happy?
  • Do you escape from problems by distracting yourself?
  • Does work (or life) stress you out and you don’t know why?
  • Do you work to pay bills and nothing else?

Part 3: Answer either “mostly yes” or “mostly no” to each question.

  • At times have you tried to undermine coworkers by devaluing their contribution or personal characteristics in front of other coworkers or management?
  • When you’re part of a team, do others’ contributions make you feel nervous or angry?
  • Have you taken credit for others’ ideas or product?
  • Do you feel personally attacked by changes?
  • Do you feel unappreciated and hurt when a supervisor points out areas in which you need to grow?
  • Do you use problems outside of work to get your coworkers or supervisors to take over work projects?

Give yourself one point for every yes and zero points for every no. Which part did you score the highest on?

If you scored highest on Part 1: Maddi and Khoshaba consider you to have Resilient coping strategies. You use the principles of commitment, control, and challenge to transform problems into opportunities.

If you scored highest on Part 2: Maddi and Khoshaba consider you to have Denial/Avoidance coping strategies. Instead of preparing for changes, you hope they’ll go away. You feel powerless and give up trying to participate in the decision making process.

If you scored highest on Part 3: Maddi and Khoshaba consider you to have Catastrophic Reaction/Striking Out coping strategies. Instead of changing direction, you try to make things go back to the way they were. When you can’t, you often disengage and feel under-valued.

For more, read this blog post.

How to Survive Whatever Life Throws at You

As Emergency Managers (EMs) we talk a lot about “resilient” communities which are cities and towns that can bounce back after a disaster. Lots of things make some places more resilient than others: stringent building codes, strong local business, committed volunteers, closely connected IRL social networks (IRL = in real life… we’re talking about how well people are connected to their neighbors).

But individuals can be resilient too. 

I’m reading Resilience at Work by Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba for class and it got me to thinking about what happens to people under high stress–why some people crumble and why some withstand or even thrive under the stress. Understanding what makes people resilient is important to me (and you!) for three reasons:

1. Both of our jobs (mine and yours) are likely to change frequently and rapidly these days due to changes in technology, political/social contexts, etc. It behooves our mental and physical health to withstand the stress that comes with change. In other words, I want to be prepared to be happy more frequently than miserable.

1b. Emergencies are stressful so practicing coping skills is part of being prepared.

2. The more resilient we are, the more we can help people.

3. The more resilient everyone is, the better we can recover from disasters and the better the world is.

earthquake woman2

So what makes us resilient?

Good question. Lots of things. Resilience is a mosaic of attitudes, beliefs, and skills that you can learn. (Yay!) Lets look at what the experts say. (For ease of viewing, I’m going to group overlapping ideas into categories with citations after each line.)

  1. Believe growth is possible instead of believing you’re born with a finite amount of intelligence/talent/creativity/etc. (This is straight from Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset“. I HIGHLY recommend you read it if you haven’t already. Not only is it important, but it’s got interesting stories too.)
    1. Be pro puzzle/challenge. Resilient people see problems as an opportunity to grow their toolbox. They think puzzles are fun and like challenging their brain. Seen in this context, problems and failure aren’t so threatening. (Dweck)
    2. Failure isn’t final. Failure doesn’t mean your stupid or talentless. It means you’re learning which is valuable. (Dweck)
    3. Change is an opportunity. Rather than fear or avoid change, Resilient people think of ways to benefit from the change. (Maddi & Khoshaba)
  2. Practice good mental tools:
    1. Choose what you tell yourself: (What Pscyhology Today calls “self-talk”)– talk to yourself about your strengths and support. Reject self-criticism and fear. Be thankful. Remember, you head toward where you look.
      1. Nurture a positive view of yourself (American Psychological Association, Psychology Today)– here’s where rejecting automatic negative thoughts and confronting lies comes in. Keep practicing, you can do it.
      2. Fake it till you make it: (Psychology Today). This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you act confident, soon you’ll feel confident. Here’s a wonderful TED talk for more.
    2.  Practice Functional Attitudes: Give yourself a break if you don’t get these right away. They take practice.
      1. Stay positive/optimistic (Psychology Today)– this isn’t to say you should avoid the realities of your current problem or deny your fear, but you can choose to focus on things your thankful for or a cautiously optimistic picture of the future.
      2. Stay open and curious (Psychology Today)– stress can narrow our focus and cause us to rely on old habits to get us through. Resist that temptation. Brainstorm other solutions, talk to people, be curious about the new changes and your role in it.
      3. Be brave As Maddi & Khoshaba state in their book, “It’s difficult to completely eliminate the fear that comes with stressful changes, but you can learn to manage it and do what needs to be done anyway.”
      4. Tolerate a little Uncertainty. We don’t like it, but since you don’t know the future, you’re just going to have to be flexible (Psychology Today) For more info, here’s what wikipedia says.
      5. Keep things in perspective: place change in a broader context (Maddi & Khoshaba, American Psychological Association)
      6. Believe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: Psychology Today calls it “stress inoculation“–those who have experienced some stress are better able to handle later stress.
  3. Embrace change as a part of life
    1. If you expect it to happen, it’s not so scary. (Me)
    2. Maddi & Khoshaba’s 3 C’s
      1. Commitment: view work as important enough to stay engaged
        1. Have a sense of purpose. (Maddi & Khoshaba)
      2. Control: Believe that you can positively influence outcomes. Resist sinking into powerlessness. 
        1. stay engaged with your work, the process of change, your fellow coworkers/family, etc.
      3. Challenge: be alert for opportunities, embrace change as a part of life, and express optimism toward the future 
  4. Cope well
    1. Get Support: Stay connected and engaged with coworkers, resolve conflicts, and work for win-win solutions (Maddi & Khoshaba)
    2. Get Organized (Psychology Today). List coping mechanisms you can employ, list possible solutions, choose a goal, list steps to get there, list opportunities you could forsee, list priorities (maybe it’s time to clear a few things from your plate?), put your projects on Trello, Make a to-do list. Whatever you need to feel more comfortable, do it.
    3. Get prepared (me)– get training if you need it (especially in technology–I know I tend to avoid new tech that I don’t understand. But that just makes it worse.). Get mentally prepared (Psychology Today calls it Visualization)
    4. Set limits (my mom)– say no to extra projects, set a timer on odious projects, etc. This is good advice for lots of areas of your life. Learn more at PsychCentral.
    5. Take care of yourself: (Psychology Today)
      1. Stay connected with family/friends
      2. Take time to de-stress But make sure you aren’t avoiding the stress of work with Netflix marathons (Maddi & Khoshaba)
      3. Watch your health:  (Maddi & Khoshaba) Stress often causes us to over-eat, over-drink, and under-sleep. Remember, exercise is an excellent de-stresser.
...so true...
…so true…

Final thoughts:

  • You can see how these resiliency factors overlap and support one another. The good news is you probably already have functional coping skills that you can build on.
  • While Maddi & Khoshaba were writing primarily about work-related stress, I believe the principles hold true for disaster-related stress. The book uses army personnel as examples of resiliency under acute stress, so there’s some precedence here.
  • If you’d like to know more about how YOU cope. Take my QUIZ! It’s quick.

Are you practicing any of these ideas? Tell us about it!

The Stress of Relocation

My husband and I moved across country a week before Thanksgiving and two weeks before Finals. Which is fine because we’re moving back home to the Pacific Northwest and nearer to our families. Knowing that our stuff was shipping separately and that it would take about a week to get to us, we carefully packed the car so that we’d have everything we’d need to campout in our new home for a while. I even (very cleverly, I thought) mailed a box full of toilet paper, sponges, soap, a wooden spoon, etc ahead of us. Basically, this Emergency Manager packed a deluxe evacuation bag.

But now our truck has been delayed by snow, so our stuff is two weeks late and even though I’m excited to be “home” it’s still a new city and I don’t have any favorite spots yet–which is to say: Relocation is STRESSFUL. I always knew people found evacuating from their homes and staying in shelters or temporary housing to be emotionally taxing, but I always thought that I–being of average intelligence and courage with better-than-average training–would be able to tough it out. (I mean, I’ve taken a Psychological First Aid class, for crying out loud. I know about grief and stress!) But living outside of your home (as opposed to camping) without your stuff is more difficult than just the everyday inconveniences of not having a trashcan, a microwave, or a book to read. It’s even more than the discomfort of sleeping on a cot, having no chairs, and only three pairs of underwear. Basically, it’s the tension of needing to get back to routine but not having your routine-making things. Wanting to sort your life by cleaning the house and not having a broom. It’s the waiting. The waiting is killing me.

I read an article about how you should practice with your evacuation bag at least once–just go out into the woods or a hotel with nothing but your go-bag– and see what stuff you forgot. In a way, that’s what this situation has forced me to do. To go out and test my stress management skills. To test my evacuation preparation skills. And let me to tell you–I forgot to pack comfort. The thing I miss most? (besides my clothes, that is, lol, jk) A small frame which has a handwritten “I love you” note from my Honey. When you make your go-bag, don’t leave love notes behind. You’ll want a bit of comfort on the road.