Interspecies bonds provide a comforting presence

This Discovery News Channel headline: “Dogs Sent to Newtown to Comfort Grieving” caught my eye.

“Discovery News – A team of specially trained dogs just journeyed 800 miles to help grieving children and adults at funerals and other gatherings this week in Newtown, Conn.


The dogs all come from the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry at Lutheran Church Charities, based near Chicago. The dogs were present yesterday at Newton High School when President Obama spoke about the recent massacre.”

Those who have dogs know that dogs have a sense of justice, they know how to love unconditionally, they live in the moment, they live in homes with people and adapt themselves very easily to people’s lives. It makes them very different from horses, because for one thing they are also a predator and horses are prey animals. In this way dogs are much more like people.

I was thinking that many of the grieving children and families must have dogs in their own homes but the presence of dogs at this sad event must be enormously comforting. To pet a dog while you’re talking or just being there can be enormously helpful and grounding.

These dogs are sent out to help during national disasters, and in hospitals and nursing homes. According to the press release, each dog carries a business card listing its name, Facebook page, Twitter account and e-mail address so that those who connect can stay in touch.

Currently, the following K-9 Comfort Dogs are in Connecticut: Abbi, Barnabas, Chewie, Hannah, Luther, Prince and Ruthie. Some of them are helping the surviving Sandy Hook students.

This from the press release: “The dogs have become the bridge,” Lynn Buhrke, 66, who is a dog handler for a female golden retriever named Chewie, told the Chicago Tribune. “People just sit down and talk to you.”

The comfort dog project has been in place for four years. It began in 2008, after a gunman killed five students at Northern Illinois University. Now 60 dogs in six states are prepared to help out when tragedy strikes.”

If horses weren’t so big, I wonder if they could be used as comfort horses for those in need. I watch my own horses recognize those in need, those that need comforting, mothering. My own horses have done this for me, and for others, their sensitivity being expansive in a different way than our own.

IMG_1966When I fractured my pelvis in 2010, I hobbled over to the corral gate on my crutches. My mare Zuzka was afraid of me on crutches. Khami wanted to eat the crutches. When I got through the gate, both horses were curious but Zuzka was guarded. I realized that she could not comprehend my walking with sticks. I sat down in a lawn chair my friend Nancy put out for me, and laid my crutches at the side of the chair. Then Zuzka came over and stood over me, as though she were a mother standing over her foal. The feeling of her solid, mothering presence at that time still brings tears to my eyes.

When it came time to actually try riding about three months after the injury, Khami offered himself to me as a riding horse. It was perfect, he is much narrower than Zuzka, and he just presented himself. My friend and colleague Zarna Carter and I worked with getting my body right in the saddle using Ortho-Bionomy and Equine Positional Release (EPR), connecting me and Khami. He carried me with pride and with such care, which some friends found surprising since he can be very lively. (More on this treatment is discussed in an article in OrthoHorse Jan/Feb 2011.)


What struck me about this was that each horse found a way to help me. Each offered a very profound healing presence in my life. They also do this with children very naturally, adapting themselves to the needs and frailties of children.

Another story is of three horses who lived together. One became blind, and the other two would flank him and lead him to food and water when it was put out.  That blind horse never wanted for anything, his buddies took excellent care of him.

I have many other stories of horses helping people and each other and I’m sure you do, too. We hear many stories in the news about dogs helping and rescuing people. Please write and share those stories of interspecies bonds. These stories help us recover from trauma such as the Newtown tragedy, help buoy our spirits and replace fear with love. They illustrate that our interspecies bonds can be very strong and can be cultivated to be much stronger, strengthening the energetic fabric of our lives.

p.s. I just learned that the Therapy Horses of Gentle Carousel miniature horses are heading to Newtown soon!

(copyright Susan Smith, OrthoHorse, Horses at Liberty Foundation Training)


5 thoughts on “Interspecies bonds provide a comforting presence

  1. Susan, thank you so much for posting such a timely & heartfelt message! Since I discovered their live puppy-cam on this past summer, I’ve really grown fond of the Golden Retriever and Labrador. Wounded Warrior Connection uses soldiers with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury in the training of service puppies/dogs for their fellow Veterans with mobility impairments. It’s a therapeutic service dog training program that harnesses the healing power of the human-animal bond, much like the Comfort dogs visiting Newtown. Researchers are accumulating evidence that bonding with dogs has biological effects, such as elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin — oxytocin improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects. This video tells the story of WCC and their wonderful dogs.

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