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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.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Jo Anna | December 20 2012 |

This goes out to anyone and everyone who wishes to make a contribution that has that all powerful "ripple effect". Let your donation make a difference with these incredibly special and beautiful canine angelsas they provide comfort by simply "being there" for those in times of trouble. I emphatically encourage you to make a contribution to K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry. I just finished writing my check. Why not do the same. Every bit helps! Thank you K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry for all you do!

Submitted by Julie Palais | December 20 2012 |

It is very misleading to call these dogs "service dogs". Therapy Dogs are not Service Dogs. There is a difference between therapy dogs and service dogs. I am also curious if these dogs are registered with any of the national organizations that train and register/certify therapy dogs such as Therapy Dogs International (TDI), Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) or Therapy Dogs Inc.? There are also dogs especially certified to work in situations like the one in Newtown. They are called Crisis Dogs and such dogs would be better suited to this sort of "crisis" situation. I recommend that these great folks look into either Hope Animal Assisted Crisis Response or National Animal Assisted Crisis Response (NAACR). In any case it is wonderful what these people and dogs did coming all the way from the Midwest to help out with this tragedy.

Submitted by Anonymous | December 21 2012 |

Wow, Julie - given the intensity of this situation, and all that is going on for these people, and the fact this organization devoted their time and energy and love to others in need, your criticism of the article and the organization is extremely untimely and unwelcome. You need to learn that sometimes generosity of spirit means keeping your opinion to yourself. CW

Submitted by Anonymous | December 21 2012 |

Wow, Julie - given the intensity of this situation, and all that is going on for these people, and the fact this organization devoted their time and energy and love to others in need, your criticism of the article and the organization is extremely untimely and unwelcome. You need to learn that sometimes generosity of spirit means keeping your opinion to yourself. CW

Submitted by Anonymous | December 21 2012 |

Your comment is utterly callous and completely unfounded...these dogs were never called "service dogs" in the article. So, what are your "credentials"? Are you "registered" with any organization that can "certify" your expertise in this area? What, in God's name, qualifies you to suggest that some other dogs "would be better suited" to provide comfort in this situation? Do you have any substantive contribution to make, other than to offer recommendations to "these great folks" who have gone out of their way to help others in their time of need? If these dogs and their handlers have provided even a modicum of solace to the grieving community in Newtown, who really cares what "credentials" or "certifications" they hold in their paws? An unqualified "bravo" to K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry!!

Submitted by Deirdre Rand | December 22 2012 |

I concur with the questions Julie raised and would like to add that
four volunteer dog/handler teams from Therapy Dogs International (TDI) were also there in Newport offering comfort to residents.

Submitted by LAURIELYNNE & C... | December 22 2012 |

ARE YOU REALLY SERIOUS? THIS IS THE "MAIN" THING YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT? THE TECHNICALITY OF WHAT THESE DOGS ARE: SUCH AS SERVICE OR COMPANION OR THERAPY DOG? COME ON NOW GET A GRIP ON THE REALITY OF THE SITUATION. DOGS ARE 'GODS' GIFT TO US AND WHATEVER THEY ARE CALLED BY YOU THEY DESERVE THE RECOGNITION THAT THEY DO THEIR PURPOSE OF GIVING LOVE AND SWEETNESS TO THOSE IN NEED. THANK 'GOD' FOR THESE SELFLESS WONDERFUL CREATURES TO BEGIN THE HEALING PROCESS FOR SUCH A HORRIFIC TRAGEDY LIKE THIS ONE. FOCUS ON WHAT THE DOGS PURPOSE IS......NOT IF IT IS CERTIFIED OR NOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Submitted by Anonymous | December 20 2012 |

What a wonderful mission this group has embarked on! It is constantly amazing what dogs can do for us.

Submitted by Sharon, Zelda's Mom | December 21 2012 |

When there are no words that work, hug a dog. They understand and don't need words.

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