Talon News - Good Local News

By Lisa Bailey



December 22, 2017

Lisa Bailey

Helen Taylor with her dog Reggie, and Marla Sipes with Karma

After the December 7 shooting at Aztec High School, Pet Pals agency member, Sara Kaynor, immediately reached out to local schools and authorities in an attempt to offer the therapy dog services provided by their teams. However, not having heard back by Friday, Pet Pals President, Marla Sipes, struggled about going into the weekend with no plan of action. There were teams prepared to share the power of the comfort and unconditional love that the therapy dogs provide. She woke early Saturday morning and knew, "We had to do something". Still waiting on return calls to get permission to assist in the post crisis intervention for the students and staff in Aztec schools, she began calling the Pet Pals teams together, a team consists of a therapy dog and its owner, or handler. Being aware that Aztec Sparkles was taking place that Saturday, December 9, she arranged for the teams to meet in Aztec to be a presence during the event. Literally prompted by a dream, she told the others that, "We need to let Aztec know the community is behind them in a furry four-legged way." Sara added, "Everybody feels it," referring to the tragedy. She feels fortunate that as Pet Pals handlers they have a tangible service to offer, noting that people feel helpless and do not know what they can do to provide comfort to those who are affected. She added, "Everyone has something different to bring."

The teams reported touching responses from Aztec Sparkles attendees, and local merchants. The handlers step back and let the dog do the work, they can bring out emotions that may be difficult for people to communicate through words. Marla pointed out, "They connect with the dog. We're just at the other end of the leash." Although the Pet Pals therapy dog owners understand, others are often surprised at the effects. Even those who are hesitant to make contact with the dogs find themselves caught up in their intuitive, warm and furry world. People are overwhelmed with the amount of joy the dogs bring and how they help. "Unless you've experienced it there's no words to describe what the animals can really do," Marla said.

As it turned out, officials at the district and state level had been seeking out the Pet Pals agency just as earnestly as Pet Pals had been seeking them, to coordinate services. Once connected, Pet Pals was able to plug into the ongoing effort to provide the appropriate resources and debriefing for the students and staff. Pet Pals teams were asked to be on site at Aztec High School on the Sunday following the incident, when the faculty and staff were first allowed back to their classrooms and offices to retrieve items that may have been left on campus unintentionally. They were again asked to participate in the Monday debriefing and on Tuesday when students in other Aztec schools began returning to campus. One word that surfaced repeatedly about their experiences was intense. Pet Pals handlers, Marla and Sara, share that although the work is enormously rewarding, the teams, dogs included, can get emotionally exhausted. Obviously, the handlers often re-live the events through the recounts of those who experienced it. Whether the dogs intellectually understand is debatable, but Mara and Sara both report that the dogs definitely feel people's emotions. And, they too, get weary. Several of the Pet Pals handlers have two dogs and are able to switch them out as needed.

(dog names included) Bob Ashley & Bailey, Melissa Salyers & Bridgette, Helen Taylor & Maya, Marla Sipes & Karma, Sara Kaynor & Sophie, Becky Houghton & Rosie, Mickie Marquez & Pedro

The professional counselors and chaplains from the state recognized the therapy dogs and commended San Juan County Pet Pals teams for their early intervention. Approximately ten local teams, joined by two teams from Durango and another from Cortez, were all available. This is support that Pet Pals does not want to see, drop off. In other words, there is concern that after the winter break and the beginning of the new year, that people will attempt to move on. Pet Pals members understand that the support needs to remain in place. They have already begun a plan to maintain a constant presence in the schools, building relationships with the staff and students. They have also created those connections that will help them be an integral part of the response team in the future. Marla shares, "We are all working unilaterally for the same goal, for the same purpose. To just bring these people and these animals together for comfort and whatever we can do. We're just there to provide our service, we're all volunteers, some are retired, some are working." Marla and Sara concur that their work is a labor of love. They love and take care of the dogs and the dogs offer unconditional love to the people they are serving. Sara adds, "There's nothing purer than puppy love."

If you are interested in becoming a pet therapist or simply contributing to their mission please feel free to contact Marla at 505-486-4231.


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