Monday, September 25, 2023

Williamsburg dog helps those grieving after a tragedy

ZuZu and her owner Donna Crinklaw bring comfort to those suffering from a crisis or tragedy. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Donna Crinklaw)

WILLIAMSBURG — Like most dogs, ZuZu loves to fetch, cuddle, and play tug-of-war with her toys. 

She also likes to bring solace to people after a crisis. 

Comfort dog ZuZu and her owner and handler, Donna Crinklaw, are one of HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (AACR) teams.

They travel to the site of a crisis or of a disaster to provide comfort and support for people.

HOPE AACR is a national organization based out of seven regions within the United States. When requested, teams are deployed from each region to bring emotional support to those who need it.

A member of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), HOPE works side-by-side with first responders, relief organizations and community groups. 

“We never go unless we’re invited to be there,” Crinklaw said. “We don’t want to add to the confusion.” 

Crinklaw and Zuzu have just returned from Boulder, Colorado, where they were called out to help those grieving after the March 22 mass shooting at the King Soopers grocery store.

Crinklaw and ZuZu traveled to Boulder to help those suffering from the King Soopers shooting. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Donna Crinklaw)

There, ZuZu offered love and cuddles to those suffering from the aftermath of the tragedy.  

For Crinklaw and her five-year-old English Golden Retriever, this is more than just work.    

Crinklaw spent 34 years in education before retiring in 2015. 

“I knew that I wanted to do volunteer work in retirement and I had heard about comfort dogs,” she said.

Knowing she wanted an English Golden Retriever for their calm temperaments, she found a breeder, who did a personality test on the six-week old dogs. ZuZu was picked out of the litter. 

“ZuZu, from day one, has been really chill,” Crinklaw said, “She was really meant to do this type of work.”

They began her training at eight weeks old in a school in Florida. 

The initial step in the process is for the dog to achieve the Canine Good Citizenship (CGC) from the American Kennel Club (AKC)

After a year training to be a therapy dog team, ZuZu had to go through a screening process and a three-day weekend of intensive training with HOPE. 

Once ZuZu passed the tests, she was ready to answer the call of duty. 

HOPE prepares the dogs by sending them to places like amusement parks to get them used to noise and confusion.  

ZuZu and her owner have done several trauma calls, but their first major one was the Virginia Beach municipal center shooting in 2019. 

RELATED STORY: A year later, motive of Virginia Beach mass shooting remains unclear

“That was tough,” Crinklaw said.

However, it prepared the team for other high-stress sites, like Boulder. 

Bringing Comfort to Boulder

The Colorado HOPE teams had been there the first week-and-a-half following the shooting, but were worn out by the time Crinklaw and ZuZu took over. 

“We were the only team there over the weekend,” Crinklaw said. “I assured everyone ‘I’m fine, I feel like the two of us can handle this.’ And we did.”

The team was set up in the same shopping center where the shooting happened.

Chase Bank volunteered the use of their second floor for the teams there to help survivors,  relatives of victims and as well as community residents. 

“This was a very tight community. People have lived there forever” Crinklaw said. “You could just see it.”

FBI Victims Assistance, counselors and masseuses were set up in the same area. Right in the middle of the makeshift center was an area resembling a living room where people could come in and be comforted by the HOPE dogs.

“Of course, people coming in were very tense and then they would start interacting with the dogs,” Crinklaw said. “Then the counselors would come sit down and start talking to people.”

A living room model was set up at Chase Bank in Boulder, where ZuZu and other HOPE comfort dogs were available to interact with. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Donna Crinklaw)

“Counselors love having the dogs there, because it takes the awkwardness out of the situation and it gives them a segway,” she added. 

What makes dogs such a comforting face for people in the aftermath of a crisis?

Crinklaw recalls a moment after the Virginia Beach shooting when a person was down on the floor playing with ZuZu. 

“I have nothing to worry about with you,” he told ZuZu. “I know you’re not going to hurt me.”

Crinklaw was particularly moved by this comment.

“You think of the Virginia Beach shooting, and it was a coworker,” she said. “So who do you trust? But the trust is there automatically with these guys.”

“They’re just gentle creatures,” she continued. “They’re just there to provide their love.”

And ZuZu loves the attention. When people are petting and playing with her, Crinklaw said that she is in “dog heaven.”

But the comfort dogs at HOPE know that they’re there to work, too. 

“That’s the great thing about working with HOPE,” Crinklaw said. “The training is the same no matter where in the country the dog is from.”

Crinklaw said that she really noticed this in Boulder, where they had teams from Arizona, Michigan, Colorado, California, Texas, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

The dogs all behaved the exact same way due to the training.

“HOPE really works to not create stress for those that are needing the comfort,” she said. 

The handlers keep hold of the dogs’ leashes the entire time they are interacting with the people, always remaining within six feet of the dog at all times. 

Crinklaw points out that there is quite a difference between therapy dogs and comfort dogs.

ZuZu and her handler were the only HOPE team in Boulder during the first weekend. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Donna Crinklaw)

“The training is at another level,” she said. “Both humans and the canines are well-trained.”

What makes HOPE different?

In other organizations, the handler or the trainer might not be the same person that the dog lives with. 

With HOPE, however, the owners are the handlers and the trainers. They do everything with the dogs, Crinklaw said.

But Crinklaw just describes herself as ZuZu’s “chauffeur.”

“There was a counselor I was traveling with when we went to Virginia Beach who said to me, ‘Nobody knows your name here, they all know the dog’s name. Doesn’t that bother you?’” Crinklaw laughed. 

“I said, ‘Not at all, I’m an introvert. I’m her chauffeur.’” 

That doesn’t mean that traveling to one crisis scene after another doesn’t have an effect on her. 

“Our organization is huge into self-care,” she said. “We do have counselors. We have people to call. Fortunately, my husband is always with me. So he’s a good one to talk to about things.”

Shortly after returning home to Williamsburg from Colorado, Crinklaw is already on stand-by to go to Indianapolis for the recent mass shooting at a FedEx, where HOPE teams have already been requested.

“Just thinking about going, it’s like ‘man i’ve barely decompressed from one,” she said.

But Crinklaw, who lives in a motorhome with her husband six months out of the year, is used to the travel life. 

Although, she said that she and ZuZu will probably fly for this trip. 

Though it can be emotionally draining, Crinklaw and ZuZu love their jobs.

“I’m grateful that I can do this and help people,” Crinklaw said. “I don’t see stopping any time soon.” 

For now, ZuZu will continue to help relieve people’s pain and stress with just a tail wag and unconditional love. 


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