Dogs, large or small, service or strictly pets, can be a gun violence survivor’s best
friend — a coping tool hidden beneath four paws and a bunch of fur.
When Jennifer Longdon was injured by a random shooter in Phoenix, Arizona, 15 years ago, she was paralyzed from the chest down, her life forever altered. Her canine pal Pearl, a Doberman pinscher service dog, helped Longdon negotiate her new world. The two learned together.
“I got Pearl as a puppy about a year after my injury. I raised her, I trained her. She was amazing. She actually kind of brought me out of my shell. Because I took her out and walked her,” said Longdon of their ventures into the neighborhood, the human on wheels, the dog loping alongside. “And she was also a bridge to people. So people who didn’t want to talk to me, wanted to talk about the dog. And she became a great connector back to humanity for me.”
In addition to helping Longdon ease back into the world, Pearl also gave her human tremendous physical support.
“Dobermans have this bad reputation, but they bond to a human. And they’re very smart, and they’re very loyal,” Longdon said. “A lot of other animals are food driven. And a doberman just loves you. They will put down their life for you. Pearl would pick up things that I dropped, she would hold me in my chair, and she watched my transfers. And she would realize before I did that that transfer is not going to work,” she said of transferring herself, for example, from her wheelchair to a couch, or a bed to the wheelchair. “And she would be there and catch me and ease me down, rather than me breaking something.”
Before Pearl entered Longdon’s life, Longdon fell out of her wheelchair and fractured a leg. That is not uncommon for people with spinal cord injuries.
“Pearl saved me from a lot of fractures. And she would recognize that, ‘You’re not doing so well,’” Longdon said.
One of the effects of a spinal cord injury is clonis — a neurological condition that creates involuntary muscle contractions, causing uncontrollable shaking movements.
“Sometimes clonis will be so bad that it pulls you out of your chair. And for me, the drugs just weren’t the answer,” Longdon said, adding the condition does not bother her as much as it did in the early days of her injury. “If it got bad like that, sometimes she’d just come and put her head on my leg. And just the warmth and the gentle weight would make it stop.”
And then there was the intimidation factor of a 110-pound canine escort.
“She was amazing. And everyone who knew her loved her. And she was as intimidating as hell, which didn’t hurt.”
Longdon, who goes by Jen, since January 2019 has held a seat in the Arizona State House and is an advocate for gun reform. Pearl died in 2016, and Longdon currently lives with two non-service dogs named Porter and Kuma who valiantly bark at strangers and, Longdon quipped, are both “pro floor-holder-downers.”
For another gun-shot survivor, a new puppy helped him move back toward life during a horrific and long physical and emotional recovery.
Ron and Nancy Barber lost their golden retriever the year before Ron Barber was shot, and decided, in their 60s, they were done with dogs, certainly with puppies.
But that resolution dissolved not long after Barber was hit by two bullets in the January 8, 2011, Tucson, Arizona, Safeway shopping center shooting. District Director for U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, Barber, Giffords and 11 others were wounded by a man obsessed with Giffords. At the public “Congress on Your Corner” event, six people died.
For months after the shooting, Barber felt survivor’s guilt, knowing that he was alive while others — including a 9-year-old girl and his assistant, a 30-year-old man, were not. There were months of painful physical therapy, and the emotional work of someone suffering from PTSD.
One day at home, he was lying on a chair with his injured leg propped up. His recovery had been slow-going for his body and his mind.
“Nancy came home and she said, ‘I’ve got something to show you.’
“She had three puppies in her hand. Three little tiny dots, right? And I said, ‘Oh, Nancy, you didn’t. We said we’d never do this again.’”
“Well, there’s only one for us,” Nancy responded, telling Ron to pick between the three.
“And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’”
“So she put her on my chest. That was the end of that,” Barber recalled, laughing.
“And she cuddled me forever. We were inseparable for quite a long time. And I believe that she really had a healing aspect to her.”
The tiny bundle of fur named Tipper helped Ron’s wife, too.
“If one of us is hurting for whatever reason, you know, she’s all about licking us, making sure we’re okay.”
Barber turns back to the dog, a small poodle terrier mix who offers emotional support, but is not a bonafide service dog.
“And she’s the best, aren’t you, girl? Yes, she is,” he said, petting Tipper, who perked up. Obviously, they were both still smitten, seven years later.
“She was a very important part of me getting better,” he said.
For two survivors of the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting of October 1, 2017, their two pit bulls are there for them during their ongoing recovery.
Mindy Scott and her 21-year-old daughter attended the festival, their first concert together after her daughter became an adult. Neither were hit by a bullet, but the aftermath has been intense.
Scott’s daughter moved back home for a couple of weeks after the shooting, and it was the dogs the young woman turned to.
“When she went home, it was when one of the dogs would walk with her,” Scott said of her daughter’s place, about a block away. “She just did’t feel safe at that time.”
Las Vegas is big on fireworks, which can trigger survivors of gun violence. The sound can take them back to the scene of violence and death.
New Year’s Eve is often celebrated in Vegas by fireworks over the strip, as is, of course, the Fourth of July.
“I hid in my closet,” recalled Scott, a waitress and painter. “I sat with my dogs, my pit bulls,
as they snuggled with me.”
She and her daughter put on headphones, watched movies on their laptop, and held tight to their rescue dogs.
“Roxy just sat there with me. She just laid in my lap,” she said of one of the dogs. “And that’s how we did it through the night,” she said. “It was just getting over that little hump.”
For one gun-violence survivor, his dog was there for him after the shooting, and later when he went through his final illness. Now the dog is there for his widow.
“Kirra was Bill’s absolute pride and joy,” said Sallie Badger, widow of Bill Badger. A retired Army colonel, he was shot during the 2011 Tucson Safeway shooting, and is credited for helping tackle the gunman that day. “She adored him.”
Kirra had been shot and stabbed as a puppy, but found a good life with the Badgers.
Bill Badger lived for about four years after the shooting, and the Badgers became advocates for gun reform, traveling across the country to support the cause.
A few years after the Safeway shooting, Bill Badger’s health declined.
“When Bill was sick, he slept in a guest bedroom because he was in pain and flailing,” Sallie Badger said. “And he said, ‘Is it okay if Kirra sleeps in here with me?’”
The huskie-lab mix had never been allowed on the furniture.
“I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So she slept on the bed with him. And it was very, very comforting for him.” She paused, and smiled. “I’d go in, and Bill would have this much room [she mimes a few inches] and Kirra was sprawled out, of course.”
Bill Badger died in 2015, and Sallie went into mourning. So did his dog.
“After Bill died, oh gosh. Kirra went in there and she was in that room 24 hours a day, other than to be taken outside and to eat,” she recalled of the dog in Bill’s final bedroom. “And she was in, this is her pose with the head between her legs and she absolutely would not leave the room. It was the most pitiful thing I have ever seen in my [life]. I didn't know that dogs or any animal could grieve that way.”
Sometimes, Sallie would talk to the dog, sharing their mutual grief.
“So about three weeks after Bill died I went in there, and I was on my knees next to the bed and I said, ‘Oh Kirra, where's our Bill?’ And she jumped up and went right to the door, flew to the door. I never mentioned his name around her again. But at that point I knew I had to change things. I let this go for quite a few months. She was getting thinner and thinner, losing all this weight.”
After six months of the dog mourning, Sallie Badger made a drastic change. She stripped the guest room of bedding, pillows, and mattress. She had the carpet removed and the room redone.
“I brought her out and I closed the door and I ended that. And she became my dog. And I had to. I had to. She couldn't, I didn't know how long that would go on. But that was the six-month period. She missed him terribly. And now she is my beloved dog.”
Sallie is not someone who appears to live with remorse, but there is one thing she wishes she had done differently.
“I really regret that when he was in the hospital at the end that I didn't take her in. They told me I could bring her in. But she's so shy. She’s so skittish. She was an abused dog.
“Now most people come, she roars. She really barks. If men come, she really barks. And I'm very happy with that.”
Today, Kirra is Sallie Badger’s dog, and the two of them help one another move through the grief of losing their man, Bill.
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.