A GROUP of pet owners from Virginia and New York brought their ‘therapy’ dogs to the storm-stricken city of New Orleans to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring Christmas cheer to stressed-out victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Volunteers from Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Recovery arrived in New during Christmas week with a dozen dogs and have been making the rounds at Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) disaster recovery centres where aid seekers and relief workers were welcome to pet the pups and take their mind off the gloom and doom wrought by the killer storm.
"People open up to you when you have a dog. They'll come over, pet the dog, then tell us about their own pets that they may have had, or still have, or that they may have lost in the storm," said Hope spokeswoman Dawn Eischen.
"We've heard a lot of different stories from people, and some have been really hard to hear."
The storm last August killed 1,228 people in Louisiana and Mississippi and levelled entire neighbourhoods.
Maria Carollo of the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette and her family had to evacuate their home when Katrina flooded it with three feet of water when it struck on August 29, and now they're squeezed into a FEMA-provided trailer.
On a visit Thursday to a FEMA centre in St. Bernard Parish, she stopped to pet two of the therapy dogs.
"You're frustrated, but they're able to comfort you," Carollo said while stroking Ginger, an eight-year-old whippet mixed breed, and Custer, a six-year-old golden retriever.
The dogs, she said, reminded her how lucky she had been to escape with her husband, children and their pets - a cockatiel and two dogs.
Katrina's fury disrupted their lives and badly damaged their home, but "you didn't lose your animals, you didn't lose your family," she said. "We were lucky in that respect. So many people had to leave their pets behind."
Eischen said the dogs, who wear vests with their names on them, train by making frequent visits to hospitals and nursing homes, like their British counterpart PAT Dogs. Those with the best dispositions and ability to handle crowds become crisis response dogs, said Dawn Eischen.