Providing therapy on all fours in Las Vegas

Gary Hammer and therapy Shetland sheepdog, Nitro, recently returned from Las Vegas where they traveled to comfort victims after the city’s mass shooting. Nitro is also a service dog for Kathy Hammer. The couple live in Greenbank where Nitro sometimes gets to be a plain pet dog. Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

There’s a lot of work for Nitro Hammer these days.

And that’s unfortunate.

Because Nitro’s job is responding to the nation’s natural and unnatural tragedies as a four-legged furry comforter for Therapy Dogs International.

Nitro is a short, small Shetland sheepdog so tiny he fits on laps, which is handy for people in wheelchairs. For seven years, Nitro’s had two jobs: one as a service dog for Kathy Hammer, and the other as a therapy dog. The couple lives in Greenbank.

A special vest he wears clearly indicates which role he’s in. As a service dog, it directs people not to pet him but in therapy mode, petting, patting and burrowing in his fluffy fur are encouraged.

“He’s really intuitive about who needs him and who doesn’t,” said Kathy’s husband, Gary Hammer, who is a retired psychotherapist and handler for Nitro’s therapy sessions.

Last month, Gary and Nitro spent three days in Las Vegas consoling shooting victims and comforting counselors and hospital staff. Gary Hammer said he wanted to do something following the Oct. 1 mass shooting that left 58 people dead and 546 injured.

“I was feeling helpless in the face of all this so I decided to take some small positive action,” he said. “My grandfather would always say ‘I am not smart enough to know I cannot do something, so I go ahead and do it!’”

Hammer paid for his flight, food and motel accommodations. When Alaska Air heard of his mission, they gave him half fare and let Nitro have his own seat because the flight wasn’t full.

Locals and the therapy dog association suggested places for them to visit.

The first night in Las Vegas, they visited five shooting victims at Sunrise Hospital. Another therapy dog and handler also visited patients and their families.

“Nitro is small enough he can get on their bed if they want,” he said. “The intensive care staff also liked to pet the dogs, too. It relieves their stress.”

The next day, Nitro visited counselors who’d been hired to comfort staff at Mandalay Bay Casino and Hotel, where the 32nd-floor shooter had fired from.

At a memorial site below a “Welcome to Las Vegas” neon sign, Nitro sat near a path to the growing mound of flowers, photos and notes.

“That was a real tear jerker,” he said. “People would stop and interact with him. Nitro had a lot of tears on his back. That memorial was so massive and moving.”

Hammer estimates the twosome interacted directly with about 50 people.

“That does not sound like a lot, but small individual connections impact many.”

The two were also invited to a graduate class at University of Nevada/Las Vegas that happened to be on the subject of post traumatic stress disorder. Several students had been at the concert, and received painful lessons, Hammer said.

“We discussed the benefits of therapy dogs in treatment. Most of the students individually interacted with Nitro and one other therapy dog that was there.”

Nitro’s now gone back to his other job as a service dog for Kathy Hammer, who’s relied on service dogs since suffering a stroke in 1995.

“Oh, I missed him so much,” she said. “I take him everywhere. We wanted a calm, easy-going dog and that’s what he is.”

Her husband of 53 years said Nitro is more than just a constant companion.

“He lowers her blood pressure and helps her with anxiety and depression,” Gary said. Should she fall in the house, Nitro will find help. And Nitro helps with Gary’s diabetes as well.

“If my blood sugar is off, he’ll come up and lick me and let me know,” Gary said. “Dogs are really under used in the therapy realm. They can do a lot.”

Nitro is one dog that’s in demand.

“I received a call right after I got back from Las Vegas asking me to go to California for the fires with Nitro,” Gary Hammer said. “But I’m 74 years old. I can’t keep up that kind of pace.”

 

Nitro is small in size but big with heart, say Gary and Kathy Hammer of their dog who is both a therapy and service dog. “He’s really intuitive about who needs him and who doesn’t,” Gary Hammer said.

Kathy and Gary Hammer live in Greenbank where Nitro sometimes gets to take a break from his duties as a service and therapy dog. Sometimes he dances around in circles when the doorbell rings, just like any ‘guard’ pet dog.