Monday, 10 December 2018
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In tragedy, St. Bernard dogs start the healing process – The Recorder

Stashed away on William Gordon’s phone are a stream of photos and videos of his St. Bernard dogs. They are posing with important people and in important places: on the marquee in Times Square, at a red carpet event with Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger; at the NASDAQ stock exchange ringing the bell. There are videos of the dogs starring in RadioShack and Tommy Hilfiger commercials.

Next to Times Square and Tommy Hilfiger is tragedy, though: photos from Newtown, Conn., Las Vegas, Nev., and Pittsburgh, Pa.

Those photos show the dogs doing something different — providing comfort.

Between movie shoots and meet-and-greets with celebrities, the St. Bernard dogs of Greenfield Police Officer Laura Gordon and Lt. William Gordon have another job as comfort dogs, consoling victims of tragedy.

“We see people with anxiety calm down when they pet the dog. Their breathing slows down,” Lt. Gordon said. “The dog distracts from the bad thing with a good thing.”

Most recently, the Gordons responded to Las Vegas for the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at a music festival, and to Pittsburgh following the synagogue shooting last month.

Jumping into action in October

For the one-year anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting where 58 people were killed and more than 500 people were injured, on Oct. 1, Laura Gordon brought her and her husband’s St. Bernard Clarence to comfort first responders and people who lost their loved ones. The Gordons went to the city shortly after the initial tragedy, but Laura and Clarence went to different events for the anniversary, primarily a ceremony for family members, survivors and first responders.

“At one point, Clarence met with two sisters that lost their mom and spent time with them,” Laura Gordon said. “It gave them something else to focus on — petting the dog.”

Throughout other locations, like the healing garden established for the 58 casualties, people would approach Clarence themselves.

“They would hug him or sit on the ground with him,” she said. “He gave them a moment of emotional release, to smile. St. Bernards are so big, many people are just drawn to them.”

Much like Las Vegas, the Gordons were requested to go to Pittsburgh after a shooting that killed 11 people in the Tree of Life congregation on Saturday, Oct. 27.

The couple trades off on events based on availability, so Lt. Gordon went to Pittsburgh. There was a total of three dog teams there, tasked with meeting with officers that were both inside and outside of the synagogue when the shooting happened.

“We were at the debriefing, which is where officers go over the event again to come to terms with it,” he said.

A debriefing is often mandatory for first responders to attend, from Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) agents, to dispatchers who took the calls, to crime scene investigators. Gordon said that while people don’t want to attend, having a dog there introduces a positive presence to the room.

“We help them process because some of these people are telling stories of grotesque nature and they’ll glance at the dog while they’re telling their story,” William Gordon said.

Responding to events like the Pittsburgh shooting is always a learning experience for the Gordons and their St. Bernards.

“When we respond to a scene where there are 35 to 50 people, they require different techniques versus 100 people,” he said. “We get to learn every time we respond.”

First footsteps into a big world

The story of how the Gordon family got to the point of having their pet dogs console survivors of tragedy dates back to about a decade ago, when they all went on a vacation together.

“As a family, we went to go see Plymouth Rock. As we were crossing the street, people stopped looking at Plymouth Rock and started coming over to our dog, (Torin),” Lt. Gordon said. “We couldn’t even make it across the street.”

Gordon had grown up with St. Bernards, but never realized how the public would respond to them until he was an owner himself.

He got Torin, his first puppy, from a world-renowned St. Bernard judge and breeder, who introduced him to the commercial world for dogs. His other St. Bernard dogs — Clarence, Gracie, who is retired, and the late Rosie — are all related.

Gordon describes the group of dogs he has as luck stemming originally from a Google search, when he and Laura decided they wanted to enter the world of dog shows.

“We thought that it would be something fun that we could do that’s not police work — that’s not the same old, same old,” he said. “Kind of like a hobby.”

The hobby of competing, and winning, in dog shows quickly moved to meet-and-greets and photo ops, which shifted to meetings with talent agencies who booked the dogs for commercials and the silver screen — and later on, to the service dog field.

Looking back, Gordon recalls the first time he spoke with the breeder after deciding his family would buy their first St. Bernard.

“He called me up on the phone and he goes, ‘You have no idea what you’re about to get into.’ He kept on saying that, and I said ‘Yeah, yeah, we have a St. Bernard,’ because the puppy was like 4 months old at the time,” Gordon said. “And he said, ‘No seriously, you have no idea about the world you’re about to get into.’ At that point, I had no idea what he was talking about it. Before I know it, I have no idea how I got into the world that I got into, where I’m doing TV shows with movie stars and models.”

A new recruit

The Gordons’ newest addition to their comfort dog family is 6-month-old Donut, so named because of the stereotype about cops enjoying donuts, Gordon said.

“It’s a way of breaking the ice. Most people laugh when they hear it,” he explained. “It lessons the tension.”

Like the other comfort dogs before him, Donut will constantly be training throughout his tenure as a comfort dog.

“Training a dog like this is really a lifetime of work,” Lt. Gordon explained. “We are always training and we see every opportunity as a training event, whether it is formal (sit/stay/come) or informal (taking an elevator, riding on a plane).”

Donut started with puppy kindergarten classes, Lt. Gordon said, then went through obedience training and recently passed his Canine Good Citizen class. There is more formal training still to come, such as therapy dog training, which typically takes about a year and consists of one hour a week in the classroom and one hour a day for practice.

“While we are waiting (for an opening in a therapy dog class), we plan on taking him through ‘rally’ school where he will learn commands and obstacles,” Lt. Gordon added.

So far, he noted that Donut has been an easy dog to train.

“He is a natural for what I need him to do. He is a real relaxed dog, is very calm and likes to please,” he said. “He is very interested in treats, which makes his training that much easier.”

When it comes to being comfort dogs, Gordon said he and Laura’s St. Bernards have a sense of who has more stress than others, and developing that sense is based on experience through exposure to people in distress.

A tragedy closer to home

In March 2017, the Gordons’ comfort dogs — minus Donut at the time — were larger than life in Warwick, helping the community heal following a house fire that took the lives of Lucinda Seago, 42, and four of her children, Peter Seago, 7, Demetria Seago, 9, Martin Seago, 12 and Nicholas Seago, 15. Her husband, Scott, and one child, Vivian, survived.

Standing strong with 10-year-old Vivian Seago at the funeral was a St. Bernard. Then, going to school for the first time after the tragedy, Seago had the comfort dog in tow.

“One of the questions that was posed is when a (classmate) sees this child that went through this tragedy, what do you say to this child for the first time?” William Gordon said at the time. “One of the first times she came to the school … she started introducing the dogs to the kids. Then the kids asked her questions about the dogs and that’s how they got through that first point of talking to her.”

And so, the same dogs that went to Sandy Hook Elementary School after the infamous shooting there in 2012 and to the Boston Marathon after the bombing — becoming the nation’s first official police comfort dogs — assisted the Warwick community.

“You’re really sad, you’re really anxious … but you have 30 seconds where you can just relax and be with the dog. … You’re not thinking about the tragedy for 30 seconds,” Gordon said. “That right there breaks up the momentum of acute stress disorder that can happen to people. It kind of shakes them out of it.”

Gordon typically has his dogs provide comfort for people in traumatic cases in the Connecticut, New York, New Jersey area since helping to found K9 First Responders after Sandy Hook. When it came to Warwick though, he did what he could in his backyard.

“We don’t do as much here in Franklin County, but when we had that tragedy, I knew that this was the exact type of thing that we do for the others in the other states,” Gordon said. “So this would be perfect to bring here.”

Hollywood and humanity

Aside from being comfort dogs, though, Gordon talks about the dogs’ lives as celebrities, when they have been on million-dollar commercial sets, where cooks are making his dogs pounds of bacon and sausage on demand.

“It’s a different world,” Gordon said. “They spend a lot more money than we’re used to here in Franklin County. When you go into these worlds, you don’t expect somebody’s entire job would be to hold an umbrella for a dog.”

There was the time that a 9-foot-tall billboard stood alongside the new World Trade Center, prominently displaying one of the Gordons’ St. Bernards to downtown Manhattan.

Gordon, his family and his dogs were being honored in New York after winning the Top Dogs award at the 2013 annual Animal Medical Center Top Dog Gala. They were given the full celebrity treatment: a hotel suite, security detail and a limousine.

“Sometimes I look at my dogs,” Gordon said, “and I’m like ‘How did we get here?’ … We’re just small town folks here, but when we go to New York, we’re like the life of the party, almost.”

Gordon said he’s still getting used to seeing his dogs on the television screen.

“I was sitting in Applebee’s one day, just having a dinner with my family and we’re watching the TVs with some sports, and there comes the RadioShack commercial with your dog on it,” Gordon said.

Between the Hollywood cameos, though, the Gordons’ St. Bernards are service dogs. They helped Gordon through his own post-traumatic stress disorder, by which he was first introduced to providing healing to people with a dog.

Gordon describes the healing process as the rainbow at the end of a thunderstorm.

“It’s like a bad storm — there’s thunder, lightning,” Gordon said. “Then it calms down for a second, there’s a ray of sunshine or a rainbow, and people remember that nice moment after the storm. The storm could come back, but they’ll remember that beautiful moment. That’s what we do with the dogs.”


The Bark Box

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