Dogs play a number of roles in our lives. They're our companions, co-workers, and a non-judgmental ear when we need to talk. For those suffering from conditions such as autism or post-traumatic stress disorder, they provide comfort and security. Their ability to nurture is also being utilized to help those affected by large-scale tragedies.
These emotional support animals or "comfort dogs" as they have become known, aren't trained to work one-on-one with an individual person. Instead, they are part of organizations that transport them to disaster areas to provide comfort to those affected by tragic events. Recent incidents include school and nightclub shootings where not only surviving victims are traumatized, but also their family, the rescuers, and emergency personnel.
What exactly do "comfort dogs" do? They don't do anything specific – they just provide love and solace to physically and emotionally hurt people. They visit hospitals and churches, as well as emergency centers where people gather to support each other. Stroking dogs has been shown to reduce stress and slow the heart rate, and this can help those affected by disaster to talk about their experience and start the journey to healing. Not all comfort dogs are involved in such large-scale events; many perform tasks as simple as sitting with a scared child while they're at the dentist or visiting an elderly patient in hospital.
While there aren't any breed pre-requisites to become a comfort dog, many are Golden Retrievers. These dogs are good-natured, willing to learn, and very tolerant of children and unfamiliar situations. However, any dog can become a comfort companion. Such dogs need to be patient and friendly to other people and unfamiliar animals. They should be well trained and have good manners; behaviors such as jumping and pulling on the leash aren't acceptable in a comfort dog. It goes without saying that they should never show any hint of aggression. Many organizations choose their comfort dogs from proven lines of therapy dogs so they have a good idea of their temperament and trainability.
Training is very important for any dog that is going to provide a service to the public. Comfort dogs should be socialized from an early age and introduced to a wide range of situations, people, and pets. They should then undergo obedience training so they will do what they're told in stressful circumstances. There is no specific training for emotional support animals, but individual organizations may have their own training and behavior standards that need to be met before a dog is deployed in the field. Such dogs are also not considered to be "service animals" under the American Disabilities Act because they aren't trained to help with an individual person's disability. This means they don't automatically have rights of access to places such as hotels or cafeterias.
There will always be tragedies, and people will always need support. Emotional support dogs offer a degree of care that is different to that provided by people. Those who benefit from the comfort of a loving dog with soft warm fur would agree that their contribution to the community in times of tragedy is immense.