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Therapy dogs comfort Jewish Federation staff amid grieving

November 24, 2018

Sometimes comfort arrives in furry form.

Therapy dogs have been visiting staff at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh this week after a mass shooting killed 11 Jewish congregants Saturday at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill.

Canines Eli, Skippy, Max, Brooke, Baru and Butterball visited the Oakland-based federation Thursday with their handlers, cruising around two buildings, even making personal office visits to those too busy to leave their desks.

About 13 dogs have rotated two hour daily shifts (noon- 2 p.m.) since Tuesday.

“People need a break,” said Adam Hertzman, the federation’s director of marketing. “One of the things we need to be conscious of is the need to take care of ourselves--it’s a very stressful time.”

The visits were coordinated by both the University of Pittsburgh Canine In College program and local nonprofit Humane Animal Rescue shelter--the result of a single phone call, said Cheryl Johnson, communications coordinator.

“I’m so grateful,” she said. “This is the first time we have had dogs visit our workplace. I can’t put into words how this makes everyone feel.”

Marsha Robbins, Canine in College volunteer/coordinator, organized a dog schedule immediately after fielding a call from Johnson, herself a volunteer dog walker at HAR.

“It’s important for us to form relationships and when we get a call for help in an emergency we don’t even ask, we just go,” Robbins said. “God has given us blessings through these dogs and we are to share his blessings with others.”

Tears flowed Thursday as employees hugged, kissed, petted and generally made a big fuss over the dogs--most of which sported a signature red bandana that denotes certified therapy dog status.

“The dogs absorb the stress--they take the stress with them when they leave,” said volunteer handler Barb Ross of Sewickley. “They absorb the emotions. To give back during this horrible time makes us feel good--to help.”

The federation’s staff of about 60 have mobilized since Saturday, working long hours providing support to the victim’s families and counseling-- and that has left time for little else, said Johnson.

“It means a lot to me,” said federation employee Marlene Layton while petting Skippy, a 5-year-old collie. “Everybody here needs a hug right now. This does help to make me feel better.”

Johnson’s self-professed love of animals motivated her to take action.

“One of my team members lit up squealing,” said Johnson, describing co-workers reactions to the dogs.

Federation employee Joyce Hinnebusch was drawn to golden retriever Eli, and has visited with him three days so far.

“I bonded with him. I love them all and I was very excited to see them. It’s nice to not have to think about what’s going on and pet the dogs for a while,” Hinnebusch said. “I think this is valuable in any work place.”

One employee quietly visited with border collie mix Baru, petting him, before excusing himself for one of the victim’s funeral.

“There’s been a lot of tears here,” Hertzman said. “Pittsburgh is a small city and the Jewish community is especially small here and everybody knows everybody.

The outpouring of support from Pittsburgh has been overwhelming and phenomenal.”

It was an emotional shift for volunteer handler Nancy Koerbel of Crafton.

“I wanted to give people some comfort. This is a specific situation and I wanted to help in this small way and contribute,” Koerbel said.

Johnson said she hopes this inaugural week of dog visits will become a regular occurrence.

“Just watching my co-workers interacting with the dogs makes me feel blessed,” she said.

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