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An Anchorage speech therapist and her dog find purpose in crisis work

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 6, 2016

On a chilly morning in early February, bagpipes pierced the air next to Fire Station 1 in downtown Anchorage for a memorial ceremony.

A 23-year-old firefighter died in a massive blaze in a grocery store on Muldoon Road 40 years ago to the day. It was an emotional event, and attendees included the support for the city's police and firefighters, their chaplains.

Standing among them, Margaret Griffo wore the same cap and button-up uniform as the other chaplains. At her feet, in a red vest, sat a long-haired gray dog.

The dog is named Waverly, and in January, Waverly and Griffo became Alaska's first certified dog team for crises and trauma. By the end of March, five more teams will be certified.

Waverly has wispy gray fur, a curled tail and large black eyes. She holds eye contact and likes sitting close to people. At Griffo's ranch-style home on the Anchorage Hillside on a recent morning, she rolled around playfully on her back.

Griffo has short brown hair, blue eyes and a gentle way of speaking. She's trained as a speech pathologist and worked for years in the Anchorage School District.

In 2014, she became an Anchorage Police and Fire chaplain. She'd never thought she would have joined the chaplaincy -- but Griffo had a purpose. She wanted to find ways for her dog to help people.

"Part of it was the motivation to share her and share her special gift," Griffo said of Waverly. "It gave me the courage to say yes."

Meeting Waverly

In 2013, Griffo owned two huskies, one aging. She and her husband Joe, a retired dentist, wanted to find a third dog as a companion for the younger husky. Griffo also wanted a dog that could do therapy work.

She started researching and learned about keeshonds (pronounced kayz-hawnd) -- a friendly, playful breed. Around the same time, Griffo learned about an Oregon woman, Cindy Ehlers, a keeshond owner who founded National Crisis Response Canines.

Ehlers' story inspired Griffo. Griffo found a keeshond breeder in Indiana, and asked for a puppy that was healthy, social and good with people.

The breeder told her that when she put out her hands, Waverly was the first one to come to her. For a therapy dog, that was a good sign.

In dog obedience classes, Griffo learned, through a friend, about the chaplain program. Would the chaplains be interested in dogs?

When approached, Diane Peterson, the executive director of the chaplain program, was interested but direct. She said she had trouble imagining the crisis dogs in situations involving first responders, like the front line of an active fire.

But Peterson said she'd consider it. In the meantime, she encouraged Griffo to try out the chaplain program.

Training to be a chaplain

Griffo wasn't a likely chaplain. She had no clergy background. Saying a prayer out loud wasn't easy.

But, motivated in part by Waverly, Griffo started what became hundreds of hours of training, on crisis intervention, hostage negotiation, critical incident stress management.

It was up to Peterson to equip Griffo to handle crises. Her main goal, Peterson said, was to make sure the tender Griffo didn't absorb too much of the trauma she saw.

At one point Griffo told Peterson she couldn't continue.

But over time, her confidence grew. Now she prays easily, and can quote some scripture.

As Griffo was building her own resilience, she would have to teach Waverly resilience, too.

A national organization

For decades, humans have trained dogs to aid in therapy. Less recently have dogs been trained to help stabilize humans emotionally during a crisis.

The National Crisis Response Canines organization is rooted in the 1998 school shooting at Thurston High in Oregon, where two students were killed and 25 injured. In the aftermath, handlers and therapy dogs went into the school to comfort students, said Connie Jantzen, the organization's executive director.

Some of the same teams that responded to the Thurston High shooting were called to New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. At the American Red Cross crisis center where families were waiting for news of loved ones at the World Trade Center, handlers and dogs were stationed with chaplains.

The chaplains observed a significant calming effect on families, Jantzen said, so much so that they asked dogs and handlers to work with first responders. It wasn't as obvious then that in the course of helping victims, the therapy teams of human and dog became victims too.

"Most of those teams never worked again," Jantzen said in a phone interview from Florida.

A desire to protect dogs from becoming what psychologists call "secondary victims" sparked an effort to start a national network.

To be certified as a national crisis response K-9, there's a lengthy application process -- focused on the individual dog -- followed by a yearlong mentorship program and hours of activities, training, exercises and mock disasters. Much of the work is about building of mental resilience, for both the dog and the handler, and to ensure the dog can handle the work, Jantzen said.

"We get applications to do this work from the handlers, but really, the dog determines whether they're actually going to be doing the work," Jantzen said.

Waverly had the right qualities -- she loved to visit, lean on and give "love eyes" to people, as Griffo puts it. Griffo wanted to train her as a crisis dog. But when it came to becoming certified in Alaska, Griffo ran into a problem. It wasn't possible to do the normal mentorship process, because there weren't any certified crisis dog teams in the state that could be the mentors.

Crisis dogs in Alaska

A solution arose, starting with emails with Ehlers: If Griffo could find five or six other teams interested in doing the work, all could train together.

Griffo rounded up five other teams. One of the handlers is a retired police officer. Another is a minister. Two are chaplains, and one ran an Anchorage School District program for homeless youth.

Last June, the Alaska teams began hours of training. There were Skype teleconferences and several trips to the Lower 48. Training included a mock disaster at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, events at University of Alaska Anchorage and at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. One involved visiting Anchorage's downtown transit depot.

In January, Griffo and Waverly traveled to Florida and passed a formal evaluation to become Alaska's first certified crisis response team. Now, Griffo is coordinating the final training for the other teams.

She's also connected with the state emergency operations center at JBER, the Alaska National Guard and the Red Cross of Alaska. Peterson, of the chaplain organization, said she's still working out how the crisis dogs can be involved. They're taking slow steps, like the February firefighter memorial.

When a person goes missing, or dies unexpectedly, Griffo hopes Waverly and the other dog-human teams can be part of the response.

Sitting at her kitchen table, Griffo looked down at Waverly, who was sleeping on the floor. She called her a "therapy dog on steroids."

In some ways, her strongest impact has been on Griffo herself -- "my little role model," Griffo said.

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