Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2008 | People

Applause for Paws

By Kathryn Howe
Through the Animal Assisted Crisis Response program, human and four-legged volunteers have assisted in the aftermath of the 9-11 terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the Virginia Tech shootings.

Luke pricked his ears as the young girl stroked his back. While she petted his soft fur, she spoke about the tornado that hit her hometown of Parkersburg—how the storm took her house and all her toys. Worst of all, the twister killed her own dog, Bailey.

Spending time with Luke made her feel better.

It was heartbreaking proof that Keri Neblett made the right decision when she and Luke, an Alaskan malamute, became certified last year through Animal Assisted Crisis Response—an organization that believes dogs can provide emotional support to traumatized people in a way no human can.

This past May, a devastating tornado destroyed much of Parkersburg-New Hartford, killing eight citizens of these tiny northern Iowa hamlets and injuring dozens more. Neblett arrived with an entourage from Animal Assisted Crisis Response in hopes the dogs could bring some measure of relief to the survivors.

Says Neblett: "A dog doesn't care how you look, doesn't care what you say. A dog is just there unconditionally, and people really feel like they can let down their guard. All these feelings come out and no one has to utter a word."

Her trip to Parkersburg was the second crisis Neblett has responded to since completing 40 hours of training. In February, she traveled to Northern Illinois University to assist survivors of a campus shooting.

To earn crisis response certification, Neblett and Luke endured an intense physical and mental ordeal. Throughout the 12-hour days, the pair repeatedly encountered stressful situations—from siren-blaring fire trucks to a trip on an airplane—to see how Luke would cope. The week culminated in a simulated tornado disaster scenario.

"I now realize it was all worth it," says Neblett. "I've always thought dogs possessed a natural healing power, but I underestimated just how much."