Fidos for Freedom

Gretchen Strecker, a therapy dog handler from Greenbelt, has a friend in "Annie," a Newfoundland service dog at the Fidos for Freedom gathering in Laurel. (Photo by Phil Grout / February 1, 2014)

A week after the fatal shootings at the Mall in Columbia where Brianna Benlolo, Tyler Johnson and shooter Darion Aguilar lost their lives, Fidos for Freedom in Laurel opened its doors for the first time in direct response to a public tragedy. More than 30 therapy dogs and their owners gathered on Feb. 1 to offer comfort and compassion to anyone impacted by the shooting at the Mall in Columbia.

Since it was founded in 1987, the nonprofit organization has trained and provided service dogs to assist clients living in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan areas. Fidos currently has about 200 volunteer teams, each consisting of a dog and a human handler, which include hearing and mobility dogs as well as about 140 therapy dogs.

Saturday's event, "Comfort for the People of Columbia and Howard County," was the brainchild of Client Services Program Director Sandra Ball, who said that one of the organization's puppies, a 9-month-old yellow lab named Chauncey, was in training at the mall on the morning of Jan. 25. Fortunately, Chauncey and his puppy raiser, Evelyn Fuller, of Columbia, left shortly before the shootings occurred.

"We go to the mall because Chauncey is going to have to go out in the public, ride elevators and go up and down steps and so forth when he gets matched with a client," Fuller says. "Our biggest job as puppy raisers is to make sure the dogs are very well socialized in addition to learning the commands that are part of their training."

Fidos for Freedom's therapy dogs assist veterans with post traumatic stress syndrome, and Ball said she thought of taking therapy dogs to the mall to comfort returning employees, police, first responders and shoppers.

"I know what our dogs can do," she said. "It's the unconditional love they give."

But the mall management had been overwhelmed with offers of support since it reopened, she said, so Fidos' board of directors opted to host the event at the training facility on Sandy Spring Road.

The location drew Laurel residents Mandrell and Jennifer Birks, who brought their children, Darien and Taylor, to see and pet the dogs and "relieve stress" in a non-threatening environment. The Birks endured being trapped together in the back of the Apple store at the Mall in Columbia on the day of the shootings.

Mandrell Birks, who is a broadcaster at SiriusXM radio, said that his family is taking it "one step at a time" and will return to the mall eventually, monitoring their young children for trauma. He also said the hardest part for him had been trying to plan how to position himself in front of his family in case the next person through the door was the shooter.

Although Fidos' therapy dogs are owned by individual volunteers rather than the organization, they have undergone the same training and testing as service dogs. For varying reasons, the therapy dogs have not become service dogs assigned to clients. Instead, they've been adopted into private homes and often team with their humans to participate in educational and community outreach and provide pet therapy at local health care facilities.

Medical research studies show that petting animals can lower stress hormones and blood pressure. Colleges such as the Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School, who loan certified therapy dogs like books through their library services, have begun using pet therapy to help their students cope with the stress associated with exams.

Fidos' therapy dogs have worked at Laurel Regional Hospital and Cherry Lane Nursing Center, as well as other health care facilities in the area. Retired nurse and Fidos President Judy Cannon has been visiting Bond Mill Elementary School with her therapy dogs as part of the organization's Dogs Educating and Assisting Readers program for five years.

Laurel Mayor Craig Moe stopped by the event Saturday, he said, to show his ongoing support for the Fidos organization and to reach out in particular to the residents of Howard County.

"Anything that can help the healing process is important," he said.