One boy confided in the gentle-faced golden retriever about exactly what happened in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School that dayâ€”which his parents said was more than he’d been able to share with them. A little girl who hadn’t spoken since the shootings finally started talking to her mother again after petting one of the “comfort dogs.” Groups of teenagers began to open up and discuss their fear and grief with each other as they sat on the floor together, all stroking the same animal.
The dogs are therapy dogsâ€”professional comforters that were brought to Newtown, Connecticut, almost immediately after the horrific shootings on December 14 that left 20 young children and 6 staff members dead.
Tim Hetzner, leader of the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K9 Comfort Dogs team, traveled to Newtown with nine specially trained golden retrievers and their volunteer handlers from the Addison, Illinois-based group.
Using a local Lutheran church as their base, the K9 teams have spent the past few days visiting schools, churches, activity centers, and private homes in the community. They only go where they’re invited and are careful to let people approach the dogs instead of vice versa, in case anyone is afraid of or allergic to the animals.
Counselors With Fur
The response to the dogs has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Hetzner.
“A lot of times, kids talk directly to the dog,” he said. “They’re kind of like counselors with fur. They have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don’t judge you or talk back.”
The dogs are also used to reassure victims of natural disastersâ€”most recently, Superstorm Sandyâ€”and to brighten the days of nursing home patients. Hetzner said he got the idea after seeing how well students responded to therapy dogs in the wake of a 2008 school shooting at Northern Illinois University. Now, in addition to the core of 15 that make up LCC’s K9 Comfort Dogs team, the group has deployed about 20 other dogs to be based in schools and churches that apply for them.