Monday, September 12, 2011

Nikie the Service Dog at Ground Zero

I am a lover of dogs, especially Golden Retrievers. We have a lovely Golden Retriever at home named Shelby - she is sweet, loyal and just about the most perfect friend. Frank Shane, a professional dog therapist and CEO of the K-9 Disaster Relief Foundation, also has a perfect friend, his Golden Nikie. Frank Shane wrote a nice article about Nikie, and their experience at Ground Zero.

Soon after the attacks, Nikie and I were walking around the Family Assistance Center when a woman made a beeline for us. Trained in crisis intervention, I had decided to bring Nikie to the Center at Pier 94, set up by the city to help families of the missing or dead, because I thought he might cheer up some of the kids whose parents were navigating this unbelievable tragedy.

The woman tackled Nikie and threw her arms around him.

"Hello," I said.

The woman didn't respond, and she didn't let go.

"What's your name?" I tried again.

Nothing. Despite Nikie's and my many experiences working with people in hospitals and trauma centers, we had never elicited this kind of emotion before.

A mental health worker came over and began to talk to the woman about the dog. When she finally did speak, the woman said she had a dog named Ginger. "My husband loved to throw a yellow ball to Ginger," she said.

Slowly, the mental health worker discovered that the woman needed financial assistance because her husband, who was missing, was the breadwinner of the family.

In that moment, I recognized the power of an animal in making a human connection. I had learned about the incredible ability of dogs—and in particular Nikie—to communicate while working with him in a New Jersey brain trauma center years before 9/11.

Nikie, a majestic golden retriever, was smart and intuitive. But I didn't know just how smart until I saw him in action at the trauma center. Nikie knew how to carefully step around the cords next to a patient's bed. If a patient was alert, he approached for a scratch or some kind of contact. Often the connectivity between him and patients broke through obstacles that doctors and nurses couldn't overcome.

Read the rest of the story

Frank Shane, a professional dog therapist and CEO of the K-9 Disaster Relief Foundation, had to improvise when he brought his golden retriever, Nikie, down to Ground Zero. There was no protocol for anything—from the kind of footwear Nikie should wear to how Frank should deal with the unfathomable grief of 9/11. Yet from the moment Frank and his dog stepped onto the site, they both knew they had a job to do. As it turned out, a pair of soft ears and a wagging tail offered one of the best ways to connect to the people on the ground.

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