IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'I think she knows': The vital role therapy dogs play in helping Uvalde survivors

Therapy Animal Crisis Animal Response (CARE) teams, and others, traveled to Uvalde to bring comfort, hope and even laughter to a community in mourning.

On Wednesday morning, the day after an 18-year-old gunman carried out the second deadliest school shooting in US history, therapy dogs spent time with Robb Elementary School teachers and staff. As the dogs and their owners walked around to visit the 40-50 people in the room at the Uvalde Civic Center, Linda Porter-Wenzlaff’s working dog, Indigo, stopped and sat next to one person in particular.

Even when the dog, a Sheltie, would leave, she kept coming back to be with this one woman.

“That was my clue that Indigo was telling me this person is dealing with maybe something different or more,” Porter-Wenzlaff told TODAY Parents. “There was a reason she settled with her. The individual started petting Indigo and talking to me and said, ‘She’s staying with me. I think she knows.’ And then she shared with me her particular experience of Tuesday — and it was significant. Indigo understood.”

Indigo and Porter-Wenzlaff worked alongside other dogs and their handlers as part of the Crisis Animal Response (CARE) team of Therapy Animals of San Antonio.

"For younger children, they don't have the vocabulary to articulate what they're thinking and what they're feeling," said Porter-Wenzlaff, who is co-director of the CARE Program. "But with a dog, they don't have to. They can sit and hug a dog or pet a dog or just be alone in that moment with an animal that isn't looking to them and asking them questions about how they're feeling or what they saw. They're just offering that soft, gentle accepting presence."

A therapy dog prepares to offer comfort to people donating blood in Uvalde, Texas.
A therapy dog prepares to offer comfort to people donating blood in Uvalde, Texas.Courtesy Danielle Campoamor

Porter-Wenzlaff says she saw children in Uvalde interacting with animals in ways they did not, could not or did not want to act with a person. What the dogs offer, she said, is unique and necessary in times of trauma.

"Children can get into a pattern of emotion that they can't break themselves, and adults tend to talk to them using adult language," she explained. "For example, a child might be crying inconsolably and an adult may say, "It's OK, I'm here, you're safe, I love you.' But that doesn't register with the child what the child is experiencing emotionally. A dog can come up, sit down, get that child's attention and break that ruminating, crying or silence. They tend to force an engagement naturally."

That ability — to disrupt reactions that can keep a young child from processing what has occurred — is helpful for human counselors, Porter-Wenzlaff said. Throughout their time in Uvalde, she says many counselors requested therapy dog teams to be present during sessions with survivors and victims' family members.

"They wanted the dog presence to bring people to a safe place, to the here and now, to kind of calm and focus them so they could do the work they needed to do," she added.

Letting children be children

Outside the Uvalde Civic Center, children and adults alike could be seen laughing, playing and petting the therapy dogs. Porter-Wenzlaff says the presence of therapy dogs is not just important for the grieving and healing process, but as a way for kids to simply be kids.

"Children, their work is play," she added. "That's how children learn and evolve and develop. Animals facilitate that in a variety of ways, including the obvious — petting the dog — but also the less obvious: A connection to the world."

Porter-Wenzlaff says that the world is a wonderful place, but it obviously isn't always safe. In the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, children in particular will often only focus on the "not safe" aspect, and the danger is they get frozen there.

"You can't heal when you're in a place of vigilance or fear," she explained. "But when you can enjoy the nature around you and be part of that, it's nurturing as opposed to scary. And dogs can help with that. And children often find that being with an animal gives them more courage to be outside and to explore the world, because they have a buddy with them — they have someone safe with them."

A CARE therapy dog, eager to get out of the Texas heat as she comforts families, community members in Uvalde, Texas.
A CARE therapy dog, eager to get out of the Texas heat as she comforts families, community members in Uvalde, Texas.Courtesy Danielle Campoamor

In one session with surviving families, Porter-Wenzlaff noticed that after the children excitedly engaged with the dogs, the parents would, eventually, join in.

"It brought them together with their child for a positive interaction," she explained. "For some of them, it was probably one of the first positive, normal moments where they could connect with their child without it being 'I'm glad you're alive' or 'I'm afraid for you' or something negative."

The CARE team boasts a mix of breeds — two Golden Retrievers, a Sheltie, a Wheaton Terrier, a French Bulldog, and a pup who is a mix of many breeds.

The national standards for therapy dogs are related to temperament, obedience and socialization. There are no breed restrictions, but all the dogs on the CARE teams are highly qualified.

"We put them through FEMA certifications, human and animal CPR and first aid, an eight hour class on psychological first aid responding to communities in crisis, how to take care of yourself, and how to work with first responders," Porter-Wenzlaff explained. "And then we did some work to expose the animals to sirens, loud noises, environments that were disruptive, and then we certified them."

Porter-Wenzlaff says that the national standard for therapy dogs is to work two hours in a 24-hour time period — though, while in Uvalde, some of the dogs worked longer than two hours.

"I had Indigo there on Wednesday, took her back to the hotel to let her rest and sleep in a quiet, air conditioned room, and then we came back for a little longer," she explained. "She is very good at telling me when she’s done and I very seldom work her over two hours because I really believe in that standard."

Porter-Wenzlaff, Indigo, and the rest of the team started working around 5:30 pm the day of the shooting, then multiple hours — beyond the two hour limit — on Wednesday out of an overabundance of need.

Often, Porter-Wenzlaff says, the humans will have the same stamina as the dogs, so when an owner is tired, they know they're dog is tired too. The dogs also show signs to their owners that they need a break.

Porter-Wenzlaff's dog, Indigo, will shake her back leg when she's ready to leave. "It's like an 'I'm impatient with this,' but really she's saying she's tired," she added.

If Porter-Wenzlaff doesn't notice her dog's back leg shaking she says Indigo will gentle bark — an "inside bark" — telling her owner it's time to go. Indigo will also stop walking up to people and will, instead, sit passively and let people come to her.

"At the end of a work day, most of our dogs are more reserved," she added. "They don’t necessarily isolate from us at home, but they’re quieter, they sleep more, they’re less engaged — they show that they’ve worked and they’re tired and they need that down time to kind of let go."

Therapy dogs from another organization, lined up to meet Uvalde community members at the candlelight vigil held in the town on Wednesday evening.
Therapy dogs from another organization, lined up to meet Uvalde community members at the candlelight vigil held in the town on Wednesday evening.Courtesy Danielle Campoamor

Two of the dogs on the team responded to the Sutherland Springs church shooting in 2017, in which 26 people were shot and killed.

But for most of the team members and their dogs, Uvalde was their first time offering therapy to mass shooting victims — and it showed.

"When we’re stressed and we pet our dog ,the stress goes right through our fingers and into our dog," Porter-Wenzlaff said. "We feel better, but the dogs sense the stress and absorb the stress around them. We have to be very diligent and pay attention to when they’re telling us they’ve had enough."

Preparing for the next time they're needed

The team is now back in San Antonio and preparing to do a de-briefing on their experiences in Uvalde.

"We’re very strong on confidentiality, so we don’t share with the public or other people what we’ve seen or heard, but we can talk to each other because we’re mutually bound to confidentiality," Porter-Wenzlaff said. "Our teams all know they can lean on each other and say if they need a break."

Porter-Wenzlaff is also preparing to start a second class this summer to certify more dogs and their owners.

"We'll probably have 15 or 16 new teams with the class this summer," she explained.

Unfortunately, she knows the therapy dogs will be needed again.