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Four-Footed Therapy at the World Trade Center Site

Marion S. Lane, ASPCA

In the 12 weeks following the collapse of the World Trade Center, Stephanie LaFarge, Ph.D., and Susan Urban, M.S.W.the senior director and coordinator, respectively, of ASPCA counseling servicesspent most of their days not in their offices, but at New York Citys Family Assistance Center. In this building at Pier 94, service organizations sent teams of trained disaster response specialists to provide aid and comfort to victims families and rescue workers. Because the ASPCA had been involved from day one of the disaster, LaFarge and Urban were able to convince the city that pet owners affected by the terrorist attack would continue to need help with their companion animals. The A stood ready to assist with food, housing, veterinary care and behavioral consultations. But it was a very different role that LaFarge and Urban found themselves fulfilling for the next three months.

Four-Footed Therapy at the World Trade Center Site


Therapy dogs and their handlers just started to show up, LaFarge remembers. Although initially unwelcome, the dogs soon won admittance for themselves.

More than 100 different teams were on the schedule in late October, Urban says, some from as far away as Oregon. Most of the dogs, howeverand a few catsbelonged to local pet therapy groups such as The Good Dog Foundation, TheraPet, Inc. or H.A.R.T. (Human-Animal Relational Therapies) Programs, Inc., or to local chapters of national groups, including Therapy Dogs International, Inc. and The Delta Society. The task of orienting, scheduling and monitoring the four-footed therapists in this groundbreaking mission fell to the ASPCA counselors.

Nothing like this has ever happened before, says LaFarge. Most therapy dogs visit nursing homes and hospitals, where theyre usually the only animal present. Typically the dogs handler approaches a patient or a child and asks if he or she wants to pet the dog. But at the family center, she says, there were up to four teams present at a time. We had to make sure there was no barking or territoriality among dogs who had never met. Another difference was that the handlers were instructed not to approach anyone, but to hold back and watch for subtle cues that a person who was hurting wanted to engage with the dog.

Logistics aside, both LaFarge and Urban report that the experience was profound. Red Cross workers, police and National Guardsmen found the dogs to be excellent stress busters. Amazed psychological and spiritual counselors acknowledged that the dogs are doing important work here. In late September, when the city began to shuttle family members to Ground Zero by ferry, the police department asked LaFarge and Urban to make sure that dog teams were on every boat. Other teams were assigned as honor guards during memorial services. And on November 20, 2001, ABC World News Tonight aired a segment on the dogs, reported by Barry Serafin, who concluded that a whole new role for therapy dogs had opened up: comforting those traumatized by disasters.

LaFarge, who owns a therapy dog, concurs. The hurt feeling is eased when you touch an animal, she says.

For information…To become involved in pet therapy with your companion animal, contact ASPCA Counseling Services at 424 E. 92nd Street, New York, New York 10128; (212) 876-7700, ext. 4353; e-mail: Or contact the following organizations:

  • H.A.R.T. Programs, Inc., (845) 878-4714,;
  • The Delta Society, (425) 226-7357,;
  • The Good Dog Foundation, (888) 859-9992,;
  • TheraPet, Inc., (732) 340-0738,;
  • Therapy Dogs International, Inc., (973) 252-9800,

© 2002 ASPCA

ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 2002

Courtesy of
424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700

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