5 min read

A Day in the Life of a Disaster Relief Dog


Disaster relief dogs, also called crisis response or comfort dogs, are canines with a specific set of personality traits and training. They’re able to intuitively comfort victims of disasters or trauma during the transitional phase between the fight-flight-freeze response and moving forward to deal long-term with the effects of their experience. These dogs provide help to individuals or groups wherever they’re needed, such as the location of a natural disaster, in the home, a hospital, or school. The people they help range from children to seniors. 

Want to know more about disaster relief dogs and what they do? Read on to learn more about these pawtastic pups!

What is the difference between a therapy dog and a comfort dog?

Disaster relief dogs are different from service animals and emotional support animals in that they do not provide specific services or support to an individual who owns them. They also aren't search and rescue dogs, or therapy dogs who also help support many people through difficult times, though they can often be confused with one another. Let's look at what differentiates a comfort dog from other therapy pups. 

Therapy dogs

Therapy dogs work within institutions like hospitals, nursing homes, schools, even courtrooms, to bring a smile or a steadying influence to humans who are struggling. They can soothe and reassure as well as give affection to people who are lonely, afraid, or angry. People facing illness or caught up in legal problems can lean on these laid-back canines and absorb their calmness, fortitude, and self-confidence. As helpers in physical and occupational therapy facilities, they can provide strength and motivation.

Therapy dogs have a calm demeanor that isn’t disturbed by unfamiliar movements or noises. They need to be comfortable being handled by anyone, and they love physical contact from all people, including strangers. Therapy dogs are not service animals because they’re there for everyone, not a single owner. As such, they don’t come under the ADA’s service animal accommodations.

Comfort dogs

Disaster relief dogs are tapped when a community has been shattered by violence and loss, when people lose their homes to tornadoes and floods, or parents are waiting anxiously to hear whether their missing son has been found safe. People in these circumstances are in shock, often directionless, and in crisis. First responders like firemen and policemen, or nurses and doctors who are dangerously close to breaking down can be aided by comfort dogs. These dogs may help defuse the sense of danger,  overwhelming fatigue, and hopelessness these people may feel, simply by approaching with a wagging tail and sitting beside someone, allowing themselves to be petted or hugged.

Crisis response dogs have been shown to move victims and first responders in crisis through their immediate grief, anger, anxiety, and fear. The age-old dog-human bond is scientifically proven to increase a person’s levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, all drugs that aid in reducing anxiety, stress, and depression. Victims of domestic violence or a scary diagnosis may allow themselves to cry for the first time in the presence of a cuddly comfort dog. 

Many crisis response dogs belong to an association that partners with The American Red Cross or other non-government agencies that request they be deployed where they can be of help. Places of worship, clubs, and other organizations may ask for help to cope with members’ traumatic experiences. 

woman in hospital gown hugging golden retriever- disaster relief dog

How does a dog become a disaster relief dog?

Personality and training both play large roles in creating a disaster relief dog. Volunteers may work with their own or others’ dogs, but there are certain criteria and characteristics that dogs need to meet in order to be a good comfort pooch and be eligible for training. A good crisis dog is:

  • At least 18 months old
  • Trained in basic dog manners
  • Unafraid of strangers
  • Outgoing, but calm
  • Not bothered or distracted by crowds
  • Not bothered by loud or unfamiliar noises such as screaming, crying, or sirens
  • Not bothered by a distressed child or adult 
  • Not distracted by other dogs
  • Trainable and eager to please
  • Loveable and enjoys being touched
  • Willing and physically able to expend the required energy and work

little brown dog in vest being petted by human outside - comfort dog

What kind of training does a disaster relief dog need?

After core assessments to determine if a dog has the innate temperament to become a crisis response dog, they are put through intensive training in a practical setting to learn appropriate responses and other skills. The human part of the team is also trained in skills such as crisis management, ethical problem-solving, and advanced dog handling. Organizations like National Crisis Response Canines and Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response recruit and train dogs and their humans in what they need to do to help in a crisis.

At the National Crisis Response Canines facilities, as well as with virtual and online training, teams receive six months of training in which they’re exposed to the conditions they will find themselves in and learn how to handle them. Exercises in ignoring distractions and overcoming their own fear and anxiety prepare them for real-life disaster or crisis situations. Dogs learn to push past their natural nervousness with distressed people and move toward them instead of hiding from the emotions. In many cases, this is like providing mental first aid.

The Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response is an organization whose members with dogs are trained to respond to people who need support in times of crisis. To be eligible, the dogs must have already had training and 12 months of experience in being therapy dogs. Their owners receive training in how to handle a dog in a crisis situation and support the canine as they work. People who want to work with HOPE but don't have a dog can train can be Team Leaders to assist the dog-human support teams in the field.

small white dog on grass surrounded by people to comfort - crisis dog

What does a disaster relief dog’s day look like?

The day might begin with a trip to the disaster area. This can be by car or public transportation like an airplane. Many dogs and their humans travel great distances to get to where they’re requested.

Upon arrival at the scene, the dog will be dressed in their identifying vest and taken to the place where there are humans in need of comfort and a sense of stability. There may be a triage person who has identified those people who need contact with a dog the most, such as children, older people on their own, or the injured. 

The pup, with his human, will spend some time with each person, sometimes just a few minutes, other times longer. As they pick their way through the group, they may find they’re being trailed by other people who saw the doggo and wanted to make contact. The dog and human respond equally to all people. 

With a few timely water, potty, and snack breaks, the day goes on until they’ve reached everyone they can. Afterward, they go home or to their local accommodations, and may get ready to return the next day. 

Disaster relief dogs are not search-and-rescue dogs, although there may be some of those at the scene, too. Comfort dogs are focused on making connections in disaster areas, at homeless shelters, or anywhere they can help people in crisis get grounded and find hope. 

Learn more about therapy dogs in our related guide "5 Signs Your Dog Makes a Good Therapy Dog."

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