Last Friday's events in Newtown, Connecticut stunned the entire country. The heartrending loss of the children caused us to want to do something to help.
For most of us, it is not practical to be there to offer immediate and direct assistance. Help did arrive in the form of dogs, "man's best friend". A team of specially trained golden retrievers and their handlers traveled over 800 miles to be there to help the families of Newtown. These canines were deployed by Lutheran Church Charities Comfort Dog program.
The comfort-dog initiative first started in 2008 at Northern Illinois University after a gunman killed five students. A group of dog caretakers associated with Lutheran Church Charities traveled to the campus in hopes of providing a distraction to the student community. The program has grown over four years and currently has 60 dogs in six different states.
Comfort Dogs have traveled across the nation to soothe people in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, tornados and other community disasters.
Tim Hetzner, president of the Chicago area organization, explained: "Dogs are non-judgmental. They are loving. They are accepting of anyone…It creates the atmosphere for people to share."
Their philosophy is "a dog is a friend who brings a calming influence, allowing people to open up their hearts and receive help for what is affecting them."
In Newtown, petting and just being with the dogs, gave people relief from their sadness, even if only for a while. A 12-year-old child said, "I just love dogs, so whenever I'm around them, they make me feel better. When they come over and you pet them you kind of forget about what's happening for a little bit." Photos accompanying news stories show children hugging and receiving kisses from the canines or just sitting quietly by their side.
In addition to the Lutheran Comfort Dogs, many residents eased their pain by bringing their own pets to memorial gatherings. Massachusetts- based K-9's For Kids Pediatric Therapy Dogs was also among the groups sharing their tail-wagging friends. The therapy dogs have been present at churches where funerals will be held this week. They were at the high school when President Obama spoke.
On Monday, the dogs met with surviving students from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Hetzner said," There are a lot of people that are hurting…its good for the children to have something that is not the shooting."
Comfort dogs often visit people in hospitals, nursing homes and parks in their local community. Each dog carries a business card with its name, Facebook page, twitter account and email so those that meet the canine can keep in touch.
"The dogs have become the bridge," said Lynn Buhrke, one of the handlers, "People just sit down and talk to you."
Page 2 of 2 - It is no surprise to most dog (and cat) owners that their pets can be consoling during a time of stress or sadness. They have the ability to sense when their reassuring presence is needed. They give and receive hugs or just sit quietly near you. This may be why dogs have become so popular for visiting patients in hospitals, students in schools, people in nursing homes and those who need comforting after tragedies.
Few words or actions can even begin to ease the pain from such a tragic event. The K-9 Comfort Dogs provided a respite, at least for a few moments, from all the hurts. Their presence offered those broken hearts a little hope and a lot of love. "Chewie," "Ruthie," "Luther," "Barney," "Prince," "Hannah," "Maggie," "Shami," "Abbi," "Barnabas" and "Rhiku" were heroes doing what dogs do best: giving unconditional love.
Anne Divine is a long time member of LAWS and has volunteered at Animal Control for 18 years. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.