By Dr. Becker
A few weeks ago, after the terrible mass murder of 20 young children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a team of specially trained Golden Retrievers based near Chicago made the 800 mile journey to provide comfort and companionship to a town overwhelmed by shock and grief.
The dogs are part of the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry at Lutheran Church Charities. They arrived in Newtown on Saturday evening following the massacre, and were standing by during the interfaith service on Sunday attended by President Obama.
The presence of a loving, non-judgmental comfort dog has a way of encouraging people to share their feelings. According to Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities, adults and kids often pet the dogs as they talk or pray with the handlers.
"The dogs have become the bridge," Lynn Buhrke, 66, one of the dogs’ handlers, told the Chicago Tribune. "People just sit down and talk to you."
Others spend quiet time with the dogs. Speaking of some of the children, Hetzner said, "You could tell which ones … were really struggling with their grief because they were quiet. They would pet the dog, and they would just be quiet."
Adults, including seniors, many with tears streaming down their faces, also approached the dogs.
K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry
The K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry was started in 2008 after a mass shooting at Northern Illinois University. A group of handlers from the Lutheran Church Charities visited the campus, hoping to offer students solace or simply a distraction during the aftermath of the shooting.
According to Hetzner, the visit was so successful that weeks later students appealed to the university to bring comfort dogs back to campus.
Today, 60 dogs in six states are trained and ready to deploy. They visited Joplin, MO after a tornado tore through the town, and they were also deployed to comfort victims of superstorm Sandy.
The dogs have their own Facebook pages, twitter accounts and email addresses so the people they connect with can stay in touch.
When the dogs aren’t responding to national disasters, they visit hospitals and nursing homes.
While in Newtown, the dogs will also spend time in play with school-age survivors of the shooting to give the kids a much-needed distraction from the tragedy.