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JoAnna Lou
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Bringing Comfort to Newtown, Conn.
Therapy dogs help a grieving community

No words can describe the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. As we try to make sense of the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, most of us can only begin to imagine what the Newtown, Conn. community is going through right now. People around the world have offered to help in any way they can, including a team of therapy dogs from Illinois.

Nine Golden Retrievers and their handlers from K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry traveled hundreds of miles to help grieving Newtown residents with the special support that only dogs can provide.

The canine team--Abbi, Barnabas, Chewie, Hannah, Luther, Prince, Maggie, Shami, and Ruthie--have been visiting funerals, candlelight vigils, and other gatherings. Some people pet the dogs while they talk or pray, while others prefer to spend quiet time knowing a furry friend is by their side.

The handlers say that the dogs have helped people open up and talk, an important step in healing. But not everyone is ready to do so yet. For kids, the tragedy can be especially scary and complex, so the teams have also been stopping by other Newton schools to talk to the children.

"You could tell which [kids] were really struggling with their grief because they were quiet," says Tim Hetzner, the president of Lutheran Church Charities, the group behind the comfort dogs. "They would pet the dog and just be quiet."

But the teams are ready to provide whatever support is needed, whether it's someone to chat with or just a hug from a big, furry Golden Retriever.

Recognizing that healing takes time, each dog carries a business card with their name, Facebook page, Twitter account, and e-mail address so that the people they meet can stay in touch. It's a really cool way for the teams to extend their reach even after they have to leave.

The K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry was started in response to another school shooting in 2008, when a gunman killed five students at Northern Illinois University. Now 60 dogs in six states participate in a wide range of therapy activities from visiting patients at local hospitals to comforting victims of national disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy.

The comfort pups receive more formal training than the average therapy dog. They're screened at 5.5 weeks old and then work with a trainer for 8-12 months.

The K-9 Comfort Dogs also make me think of Catherine Hubbard, one of the 6-year old victims, a huge animal lover who dreamed of opening a shelter when she grew up. She would've loved meeting the Golden Retriever teams. Catherine's family requested that people make donations to The Animal Center in Newtown in lieu of flowers.

The pain in Newtown will never fully go away, but the work of these dogs and the support of others around the world helps the community know that they're not alone in getting through this tragedy.

If you're interested in donating to the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, visit the Lutheran Church Charities web site.

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Photo by K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.

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