When Cherry Hill resident Janice Campbell founded the Tri-State Canine Response Team in 2015, there were only five teams of dogs and handlers covering the Delaware Valley.
Six years later, the nonprofit has grown to 61 teams and covers the original tri-State region, as well as Florida and Maryland.
Campbell was recognized by the New Jersey Mental Health Association in June as a Behavioral Healthcare Hero, while Sicklerville resident Marge Inscho and her Bullmastiff Abigail were recognized as Hometown Heroes during the Sept. 9 Phillies game. They have been with the Tri-State Canine Response Team for the past three years.
Campbell started the organization after working in the mental-health field for almost two decades, doing psychiatric rehabilitation with dogs in group and boarding homes.
“I really saw the difference that the dogs could do that we couldn’t do,” Campbell said. “They have the innate ability to know who needs them the most.”
Inscho shared that Abigail can detect things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or when someone is having an especially rough time. Prior to joining the team, all dogs and handlers undergo training as therapy dogs, and some are also certified for crisis-response work. Campbell explained that not all therapy dogs are suited for crisis response work because it involves unpredictable situations, where therapy dogs typically work in predictable environments, like visits to a school.
The Tri-State Canine Response Team’s local work consists of visits to schools; nursing homes; local organizations; libraries and, most recently, visits through Zoom.
“It was a big surprise to me that it was as effective as what it was,” Inscho reflected. “What happens is that they make the announcement that they’re going to be Zooming with the dogs and just that anticipatory period lifts the spirits … It really does have an impact.”
Over the past two years, volunteers have also worked with first responders like police, firemen and EMTs to become certified in suicide prevention, in addition to the volunteers’ post-vention training. The volunteers are also trained to administer psychological first aid and offer resources through the Traumatic Loss Coalition, both locally and through deployments by the New Jersey Crisis Intervention Team and other agencies.
“We never self deploy; we would only go when we had orders or we were asked to come to help,” Campbell said. “We have to make sure we’re not taking away resources when we’re there.”
This year, members have been deployed to support survivors and loved ones in the aftermath of mass shootings in Indianapolis and Boulder, Colorado, as well as the damage from Hurricane Ida, among others.
“The dogs are the ones that really break the ice,” Inscho explained. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of giving the person a moment to decompress what they’re dealing with, which is just by petting the dog and interacting with the dog. But it also gives us a chance to speak with the person and use our psychological first-aid training.”
Inscho added that sometimes a brief interaction gives people a moment to stop thinking about the trauma they’ve experienced and provides a moment to start moving forward, to think about something else and move forward, which helps with resilience.
Inscho further noted that psychological first aid is not therapy, but a check to make sure a person has basic needs met, such as a shelter, and a support system.
“Unless their basic needs are met, they can’t even begin to move forward,” Inscho said.
Each deployment is different, and the team works to meet the needs of the community at the time. To ensure the mental health of their own team, Campbell and Inscho said they do self- checks before assembling a deployment team and debrief after. The team consists of crisis counselors, teachers, doctors and others, and volunteers do not need to have a dog to join the group.
To learn more about the Tri-State Canine Response Team, visit https://tri-statecanineresponse.org. Those interested in volunteering should reach out to Janice Campbell at (609) 828-0684 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.