Duo bring a little happiness to those suffering
Aiken Standard, S.C.
When Cocky walks into a room, his honey-colored eyes seem to immediately focus on someone who needs a little comfort.
This Chesapeake retriever, whose owner is Michele Pyle of Wagener, has recently joined a nationwide team of other canines that are part of HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response.
This nonprofit organization sends dogs and their trainers to areas around the United States that recently experienced a disaster, so they may offer emotional support to those affected. The organization started in 2001 when it first responded to the 9/11 events.
“The animals are so good at calming people down and getting them through a disaster after the fact,” Pyle said.
Pyle has been breeding and training dogs for about 20 years with her husband Chuck. Chuck is a military veteran, and for about three years, they have taken Cocky and his father Seamus, to the Wm. Jennings Bryan Dorn Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Columbia to visit patients.
The dogs have brought much joy and many smiles to the veterans' faces.
They have visited post-traumatic stress disorder patients and those in the long-term care center. It quickly became obvious that Cocky loved people, and they loved him back.
Pyle later learned about the HOPE organization and started the process to get Cocky trained for the program.
The screening and workshop were thorough, Chuck said.
Both the dog and handler are trained in stress management and crisis response.
They undergo trial runs of riding on various types of public transportation and learn to navigate airport security as well as loading onto an airplane. The dogs actually ride along with their handlers when traveling by air to a disaster site, Pyle said.
Once a dog and handler are accepted into the program, the teams continue response drills and FEMA management training courses during their time with the organization.
“It's a commitment,” Pyle said.
Before proceeding with the training, each candidate is evaluated, Pyle said.
A canine that works well with people and other dogs is typically a good candidate for a therapy program, Pyle said. Having a caring, calm personality helps, too.
The best part about this type of therapy work is bringing a little happiness to those suffering, but it can be an extremely emotional task, Pyle said. HOPE responds to wildfires, mass shootings, train derailments, hurricanes and other emergencies.
“You're dealing with people who have lost almost everything,” Pyle said. “You watch them clutch onto your dog, and all they want is a little bit of comfort and love.”
Cocky and Pyle haven't responded to a disaster yet as they just got started, but they're ready to do so when the time comes. Chuck plans to join his wife as a team leader with the organization.
Michele said she believes there is only one other dog and handler involved in HOPE in South Carolina. She said it's a worthwhile program, and she hopes other South Carolinians get involved.
“South Carolina has given us a lot,” she said while giving Cocky a loving pat on the head. “We just wanted to give back.”
For more information, visit www.hopeaacr.org.
Amy Banton is the County reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the publication since May 2010. She is a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman's College and a native of Rustburg, Va.