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Dogs really are man’s best friend

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Odin, a Great Pyrenees shepherd dog who survived the Santa Rosa wildfire, sits among the herd of goats he protected during the natural disasters in the North Bay. (Courtesy Roland Tembo Hendel/via Facebook)
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When disaster strikes, as it has too often lately, you will find dogs there, helping to save lives and comfort survivors. In exchange, they ask for little more than yummy treats, tummy rubs and a safe place to sleep. We owe them so much.

During the Santa Rosa wildfire, Odin, a big white Great Pyrenees shepherd dog, refused to leave the small herd of goats that he routinely protected at night. As his family rushed to evacuate, they realized they had no room in their cars for the goats, so they had to leave them behind. Odin stayed, too. The family assumed all the animals perished.

When they finally returned, the family found their house gone. But all the goats were alive and well, as was a limping, singed Odin and several baby deer that huddled around the big dog for safety. Odin protected them all.

“He is our inspiration,” said Odin’s owner, Roland Tembo Hendel. “If he can be so fearless in this maelstrom, surely so can we.”

Last month, Frida, an experienced search dog, became a social media sensation. Outfitted in sturdy booties and goggles, the yellow lab climbed among the debris of homes, schools and offices destroyed by two massive earthquakes in Mexico as she looked for survivors. Frida has been credited with finding more than 50 people throughout her career.

Search and rescue dogs help locate people trapped under debris or lost in the woods. The dogs’ keen sense of smell enables them to find people quickly under tons of concrete and steel and help target rescue and recovery efforts to where people — or, sadly, bodies — actually are. Search dogs worked at Ground Zero after 9/11 and have helped in every natural disaster since then.

After the Las Vegas shootings, a group of 19 Golden Retrievers from seven different states arrived in the city. Their job was to bring comfort to people who were hurting both physically and emotionally as a result of what had happened. The dogs visited people in hospitals, casinos and schools. They met with first responders and families of those injured and killed.

“You’ll see people kind of walking around in a kind of zombie state, and then they’ll see the dog and they’ll start petting them and then they start releasing,” Tim Hetzner, president of the LLC K-9 Comfort Dogs, told BuzzFeed. “People relax, their heart rate goes down. Through that process they start talking about what’s happened, and talking about what’s happened is a critical part of healing.”

The dogs that do these — and many other — jobs are specially trained to help. Because of them, lives are saved.

Even the family dog helps you and your loved ones in ways you might not realize. Petting a dog lowers stress levels, blood pressure and heart rate. Children raised with dogs have fewer allergies, less asthma and show more empathy and compassion than those raised without pets. Seniors with dogs get more exercise and have more social interactions outside the home than those without.

The bond between people and their dogs is deep and profound. During Hurricane Katrina, people died because they wouldn’t leave their pets behind. After Katrina, thanks to former Bay Area Rep. Tom Lantos, Congress told states they had to accommodate pets during evacuations. It has been heartening to see people in shelters with their dogs, cats and other pets beside them during the recent hurricanes and wildfires.

Last week, two men recorded a video as they approached the property where their family home had stood before the Santa Rosa wildfire. During a hurried evacuation the day before, Izzy, the family’s Bernese Mountain Dog, had gotten loose. The men assumed Izzy hadn’t survived, but still half-heartedly called the dog’s name.

Suddenly, you hear one man shout, “Izzy’s here!” as the big, burly dog bounded out of the ash and rubble, tail wagging, miraculously unharmed. You can hear the emotion in the men’s voices as they greet the dog they never expected to see again.

One later said seeing Izzy that day was the greatest moment of his life. Indeed, it was a rare moment of good news in an otherwise heartbreaking story of disaster and loss.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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