- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) - Whenever Abby and Barkley enter a room it just gets a little brighter. That’s because, Abby, a standard poodle, and her buddy, Barkley, a massive German shepherd, are therapy dogs, tasked with bringing smiles to those in pain.

The duo, both 10 years old, along with their owners, have been at it for quite some time. Abby belongs to Alice Moye. Beverley Spaeth is Barkley’s mom. Years ago the two women decided they would train their dogs to help others.

“It was on my bucket list … to share my dog,” Moye said, looking down at Abby. “So I did some research and found Therapy Dogs International.”

“We trained together,” Spaeth added. “I had two other therapy dogs before Barkley. His mom was my first therapy dog.”

The four formed a tight bond with the dogs competing in shows, obedience contests as well as visiting those in need. But Spaeth and Moye wanted to do more. So the two found a program in Dalton that trains therapy dogs to respond to disasters.

“There are less than 100 certified Disaster Stress Relief dogs in the country. You have to have be outstanding in obedience,” Moye said. “But we decided to have them tested. And they both passed.”

That meant that Abby and Barkley were ready to follow their predecessors into highly emotional settings. Through Therapy Dogs International’s disaster stress relief program, dogs have been sent to interact with first responders and survivors from tragedies spanning from 9/11 in 2001 to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. They’ve also been onsite after natural disasters like tornadoes. The dogs, Spaeth says, bring a sense of calm to those who have been forced to face unthinkable scenarios.

“It doesn’t matter who they are, when they see the dogs … their faces light up. Just petting them helps to relieve stress even if it’s only for a moment,” she said.

Recently they were called on to do just that - help relieve stress. Moye and Spaeth were asked to take their dogs to Orlando where 49 people were killed and more than 50 wounded at Pulse, a gay nightclub, in America’s deadliest mass shooting.

“The president of (Therapy Dogs International) called us and asked if we’d go. And we said ‘sure,’” Spaeth said. “So we loaded up and went down.”

They spent several days there, working with other therapy dogs from Alabama, Georgia and Florida to help people cope with the horror. The dogs, all different breeds, shared the same goal - to bring sense of peace to those suffering.

“There was one named Ricky Ricardo,” Moye laughed. “And there was a golden lab with a prosthetic foot. His name was Journey.”

Once on site, the group traveled across town, visiting first responders, 911 operators and FBI agents processing the scene.

“There were these big FBI agents, and they have been working nonstop. But you bring the dogs to them and their faces just change - they all start smiling,” Spaeth said. “We really had a great reception everywhere we went.”

“There was one agent who had a standard poodle like Abby at home. They had just had puppies, in fact. And this big tough guy just melted … he was so excited to see her,” Moye chimed in.

That was also true when they had the opportunity to meet with those in the community as well as victims’ families.

“There was a language barrier … and we wished were bilingual,” Spaeth said.

But, turns out, verbal communication wasn’t needed. The dogs did all the “talking.”

“They don’t care if they are speaking Spanish or English. They don’t care if they are using words they know. The dogs know that loving touch,” Moye said with a smile.

“No, it didn’t matter. The dogs’ language is universal. They just did what they do best … they loved,” Spaeth said.

___

Information from: The Brunswick News, http://www.thebrunswicknews.com

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