A dog may be man’s best friend, but in some cases, she can also be the best therapy.
Copper, a 6-year-old English golden retriever, is trained as a disaster stress relief dog. Last month, she and her handler, Richard King of Murphys, spent seven days in Moore, Okla., where a cyclopean tornado wreaked havoc on the city in May.
“Driving around town you begin to realize you’re living in two worlds,” King wrote in his journal account of the experience. “There’s the normal, everyday world you observe of people going about their business. Then, being part of a relief effort, you are part of the abnormal world of shelters, supply centers and organized relief efforts.”
Affiliated with Therapy Dogs International, Copper and King made the journey to do what Copper does best: comfort people in times of chaos and loss.
With her credential as a relief dog, Copper is among the most elite, well-trained pups among the therapy dogs. King estimated there are only about 50 in the country.
“The dog must be able to function calmly in total chaos, noise, stress,” he said, adding they go through a rigorous screening process. “They have to have total control and always, always obey.”
As for Copper, King said she was a natural.
“You could light a bomb off behind her, and she would say, ‘That was interesting,’” he said, demonstrating an impassive glance over his shoulder.
King said about five other therapy dogs were at the sites of destruction in Oklahoma.
“The dogs just looked so calm and collected,” he said. “They wanted to engage.”
The animals and their owners stayed in the shelters with displaced residents – Copper and King in St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City – and canvassed the streets of affected areas.
“We walked our dogs in those neighborhoods,” King said, “talking to people who were still picking through the sticks and rubble of their homes nine days after the gigantic tornado and listened to their stories and plans for the future.”
He said he was amazed by the residents’ collective reaction to the disaster.
“There’s something about the American character,” he said. “Even though the people were grieving, there was a kind of humor.”
He referenced spray painting on the side of a home that read, “For sale as is. New floor plan.”
“To me,” King said, “that’s pretty resilient.”
While in Oklahoma, he wrote every day and reflected on the relief efforts, such as visiting Plaza Towers Elementary, a school in Moore that suffered severe damage and the loss of seven young students.
“At the school site,” he said, “you have to understand the depth of emotion we’re dealing with in a place absolutely destroyed, with piles of house debris scattered everywhere and people grieving for lost kids and lost homes.”
In these times, he most acutely noticed peoples’ response to the therapy dogs.
“It’s not just a put on,” he said. “They really, really affect people. The dogs just played a tremendous role.”
During one of the last days he was in Oklahoma, King said a big tornado rolled through the city. He and the relief group had just returned to the shelter after a day in the field. The police chief warned that there would be a “bad one” that night, so King, Copper, four other dogs and six other people piled into a safe room from 6 to 10 p.m. They were joined by a few pizza deliverers and an older couple.
“The pressure increased, it was cold, our skin was tingling,” King recalled. “I could hear wind, hail, lightning – and a big whooshing sound passed overhead.”
A few days later, the National Weather Service reported that a tornado had “bounced” over the shelter, beginning two blocks before and landing two blocks after the building.
“It was bigger than anyone had imagined,” he said. “It was a pretty intense experience. But would I do it all again? In a second.”
When Copper is not at work on disaster scenes, she and King can be found volunteering around Calaveras County, including weekly at Foothill Village.
“Right here in our corner of the world, we have a powerful form of relief,” King said.
To meet the pair, visit Murphys Library, where at 10:30 a.m. every Tuesday, they lead a children’s story time.