Roxy calmly works the crowd, offering a tail wag only if someone notices her. Smiles and pats are the small labradoodle’s pay for working as a comfort dog at the Christmas Bureau.
A Spokane member of HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, Roxy and her owner, Kelly Heck, were at the bureau for its opening days, along with two certified dogs owned by another HOPE member, Karen Hathaway.
“Her name is Roxy, and she’s looking for love,” Heck said, as children asked to pet her dog. Roxy came to the bureau Thursday and Friday wearing red ribbons, a bell on her collar, and green vest with the HOPE response logo.
“People were really happy to see the dogs, and it was a welcome distraction from waiting in line,” Heck said. “I think it helped especially when you have kids. It’s hard to keep them occupied while you’re waiting.”
Bureau organizers invited the comfort dogs, thinking they could bring smiles and ease any anxiety for people who line up to verify paperwork and receive food vouchers, before selecting books and toys for their children.
At the bureau, low-income families can pick from a selection of quality toys and books so their children have something to open at Christmas. Additionally, the charity, which is funded by reader donations, provides a food voucher of $15 to $30 per household, based on family size.
Free childcare is available for adults while they look through the toy room, but kids often wait in line with parents beforehand. Crowds are typically larger the first few days of the event, which runs daily except for Sunday through next Saturday.
Hathaway brought Rio, a smooth-coated collie, and Sunny, a rough-coated collie. She alternated which dog she brought out on the floor, while the other pet waited in her car. Rio proved popular Thursday morning with a pair of young children waiting in a double stroller.
The kids smiled broadly and asked to pet him, so Hathaway brought Rio close. When the children had to leave, a little girl waved, “Bye, Rio. I love you.”
Hathaway’s dogs and Roxy are certified as therapy dogs through the national Pet Partners organization, and then separately by the HOPE group, which provides comfort dogs as support to people affected by crises and disasters.
Both Heck and Hathaway took their dogs to crisis responses after the Oso mudslide, Okanogan area fires, and recent school shootings, including in Marysville and at Seattle Pacific University.
“We’ll go into schools if there’s a crisis or a teacher’s death and provide comfort for the kids,” Hathaway said. “When people ask if they can pet your dog, 100 percent of the time they have a smile on their face.”
The dogs also provide pathways to conversations, she said.
“They start to ask questions about Rio, like what kind of dog is he? They relax and before you know it, they’re telling you something like they just lost their house. You don’t have to say anything. They just open up and start talking. The dogs, they’re a bridge.”
Hathaway said people seemed to appreciate seeing the dogs, especially on Friday when crowds were heavier early in the day at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center.
“It was very crowded this morning, and they had very long lines that went outside for a little while, but they moved everyone through pretty quickly,” she said.
“There were lots of smiles and lots of, ‘Oh thank you for bringing your dogs.’ The kids were giving the dogs lots of hugs.”
On Friday, the bureau served 978 households, serving 3,428 people and providing toys for 1,931 children.
Rick and Diana Wilhite, of Spokane Valley, gave $500, writing “This donation to the Christmas Bureau is given in honor of our parents, Reta and Claud Wilhite and Bob and Jean Peterson, who taught us to share our blessings with those less fortunate. We hope this brings joy to the hearts of the children.”
Donald and Marilyn Lippman, of Spokane Valley, gave $100, writing, “Thank you for helping those in need.”
Carol Lippman, of Spokane Valley, gave $100.
Note: For donations made through PayPal, The Spokesman-Review contributed the PayPal processing fee.
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