MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — At just 5 years old, Willow has a job this week that requires patience, care and a lot of love.
The Labrador/golden retriever mix was one of eight facility dogs called to Las Vegas a week after a shooting at a country music festival left 58 dead and injured hundreds more.
“What we’re primarily doing is going into the hospitals to see the people who are still in (there) and the families,” said Tamara Martin, who works with Willow as a facility dog handler and forensic interviewer at Child Protect, a nonprofit organization that supports the victims of child abuse.
“Some of the (patients) are still in intensive care, but they can visit with the families in the waiting room.”
Team Willow has been in Las Vegas since Saturday, a day after they received a call requesting their service. After the first day of orientation, Martin has found there are more requests for the dogs than there are dogs.
“We work it out so that everybody who wants to have a dog gets time with the dog,” she said. “They are petting it, talking to it. Talking about the dog, loving on the dog. And some just get down on the floor and hug them.
“They don’t express any words. They are just hugging them, and they don’t ask any questions.”
Much of their time is spent in an area designated as the “family assistance area,” where survivors inquire whether they qualify for different programs such as through the American Red Cross and also for financial assistance.
Also while there, survivors can retrieve anything they left behind at the concert site.
“As you can imagine, it is very traumatizing to pick up their belongings,” Martin said. “It brings them back. We have four dogs on the floor working with the people while they are there. They can go station to station with the dog if they want.
“Some will interact and shake hands and high-five. They just pet them. Constantly.”
Martin has worked with Willow for more than three years. A facility dog, she said, Willow is valued at $50,000, the amount she said it cost to train her.
“They can do so many things that humans can’t do,” Martin said. “Most victims are sitting there and are literally shaking. Still in shock. By the time they leave, they are talking and smiling.
“It’s sad to see that people are hurting, but they come in crying, and if they leave with a smile on their face after spending time with the dog, then it’s a good day. Just to watch the dog work … it just brings tears to people’s eyes. It’s very rewarding and I feel very honored to have been asked.”
A typical work day, Martin said, lasts between seven and eight hours. Dogs are given frequent breaks, but otherwise, are walked around “and give people the option to meet the dog. Sometimes, (people) are not interested, and that’s fine. Dogs don’t choose who they go to. The people come to us and express interest.
“They love the dogs. It has been a huge asset to have them there. It has made a huge impact.”
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com