When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened nearly 10 years ago, my town was in shambles, unable to comprehend why we lost 20 children and six educators to gun violence. As a senior in nearby Newtown High School, just a mile from the elementary school, I was in lockdown for two hours in my math class. The tragedy happened on a Friday, and we returned to campus as if it were any normal Monday. We went to our classrooms, we sat together, we mourned together, and we cried together.
As we watched what should have been light-hearted Christmas movies during our class periods, there was a solemnness in the air, and I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness that I simply could not shake. It was a lingering heaviness that would stick with me for months to come.
But when it was announced over the P.A. that there were dogs in the cafeteria that we could go and pet, my friends and I immediately went to investigate. We were met with several Golden Retrievers wearing blue vests, ready to give us all the love that we needed. I crouched down next to one named Isaiah who let me lay next to him and touch his soft coat in silence for as long as I needed.
It was the first time in days that I had allowed myself to feel even a sliver of joy. I was 17 years old.
“The healing part, the dogs are the bridge. The dogs are the bridge to help people talk,” says Tim Hetzner, President and CEO of Lutheran Church Charities, whose K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry has supported suffering communities after tragedies ranging from Sandy Hook, Connecticut to the recent shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
After Sandy Hook, Hetzner was at a local community center with his comfort dog Howie at his feet when a young boy and his parents walked in. That little boy was in the school the day of the shooting. The parents whispered to Hetzner, “He has not spoken to anyone for four days. We had him to counselors. No one, he hasn’t talked to us.”
Howie looked up at the boy, stood, and gently leaned into him, encouraging him to sit with Howie for as long as the boy needed. After 10 minutes passed, the boy lifted up Howie’s ear, and he told that dog everything that happened in that classroom.
“After not talking for four days, why is it a dog he shares with?” Hetzner says. “They’re confidential, they’re good listeners, they show unconditional love, and they wag their tails. I mean, I don’t have that many friends who have those characteristics all at the same time, but that’s what a dog does.”
Dogs Deliver Healing to Uvalde
The LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs don’t go to the site of a tragedy until they’re invited, typically by a Lutheran church in the area. After the Robb Elementary School shooting the request to come was almost immediate. Within 24 hours a team of eight dogs was on the ground, led by Bonnie Fear, LCC K-9 Crisis Response Coordinator. She handles a Golden named Cubby from her congregation, the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The director of the K-9 Ministries arranged for eight nearby dogs to deploy as soon as possible to Uvalde. As the deployment lead for this trip, Fear flew down immediately to scope out logistics like locating dog-friendly hotels in the area. The funding to make these trips possible is all from donations.
With permission from the town, the organization placed Hearts of Mercy & Compassion Crosses for Losses in the town square and stationed the dogs there. That’s when people began to flood in and approach the team.
“So people will come and they’ll just see these dogs, and we’ll see someone getting emotional. Or they come up to us and we just thank them and we just let them [pet the dogs],” Fear says. “I just said, ‘We’re here for you, this is Cubby, she would love to meet you.’ There were a lot of blank looks, like shock. Like this just did not happen here.”
When the team first arrived, Fear said that the media presence in Uvalde was overwhelming, and they were fortunate to be able to coordinate at a local Wal-Mart to get the word out to families, away from the cameras and reporters. It allowed both parents and their kids to come uninterrupted.
That was possibly the best thing they could have done to give families and children space to grieve.
“Talk about smiles and laughter and crying, and every emotion was in that store,” Fear says. “That was exactly what we needed to do, where we needed to be.”
Fear recalls being with a family that was directly affected by the school shooting. She was completely quiet as the kids sat down and pet her dog. No one spoke for several minutes. Finally, the kids and one of the family members started talking, and talking more with each stroke of Cubby’s fur. Cubby, a quiet soul, just laid on her belly with her head on her paws and let them do what they needed to do.
“It’s pretty powerful silence,” she says. “We can just see the sorrow.”
Resting and Recharging from Responding to Trauma
A second deployment team of five dogs was set to arrive on Tuesday, May 31, picking up where the first team left off. If needed, a third team will deploy to keep supporting the community and the victims’ families.
“Prior to two years ago, we used to get two emergency site visit requests a week,” Hetzner says. “We now get three a day.”
Both the handlers and the comfort dogs shoulder an incredible emotional weight when they take on the task of comforting grieving people. Each day the teams debrief after their visits to ensure all of the volunteers are coping as they are confronted with the trauma of the situation.
“That’s how we [humans] deal with it,” Fear says. “We tell our stories and we tell what we’ve heard.”
After a few days on the ground, it’s time to return home to give dogs and handlers a much-needed break. Once home the dogs will get two or three days of complete rest, meaning no time in their comfort dog vest whatsoever. Cubby will get a full grooming, plenty of play with her favorite Lamb Chop toy, and the stress release of gnawing on chew bones.
For Fear, her recovery includes journaling, talking to other team members, staying off her phone, and finally resting after an exhausting week of caring and comforting. “The processing is different for everyone,” she says.
Training Dogs to Provide Comfort in a Crisis
The organization began in August 2008, inspired by what Hetzner experienced while volunteering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He witnessed firsthand the power that Golden Retrievers as comfort dogs had for hurricane victims who had lost everything, including family members, in the storm. “It’s one of the most effective ways to help somebody in a crisis, and crises don’t have to be shootings,” he says. “They can be anything that the person thinks is a crisis.”
Currently, there are over 130 Golden Retriever comfort dogs in the program across 27 states, including one in Newtown, Connecticut. Dogs are designated to schools, churches, and other ministries, and they each have two caregivers and multiple handlers, allowing them to work whenever they are called.
The dogs have been asked to respond to mass tragedies including the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. But sometimes they’re called and asked to sit with students while they study during a stressful finals week, providing immense comfort to answer a different kind of need.
“Golden Retrievers are just big teddy bears,” Hetzner says. “And frankly, when they lay down, people like leaning on them. They always leave a piece of themselves with whoever they’re with.”
The LCC comfort dogs are trained at one of three different training sites in Illinois, and they begin their training and evaluation when they are eight weeks old. Each dog is trained by a professional trainer and several apprentices for a total of more than 2,000 hours of training, which includes on-site visits as well.
The end result is Goldens who have been trained and socialized to be able to easily work with multiple handlers and relate to people across age groups and abilities. The dogs are carefully evaluated to ensure they aren’t fearful of loud noises or prone to barking. Every year, the dogs are re-evaluated to make sure they’re up to the organization’s behavior and training standards—otherwise, the LCC will pull the dog’s vest until standards are met.
Training for handlers, though, is a little more regressive: Humans need to learn when to shut up.
Fear began her training as a handler in 2016 after Cubby was assigned to her congregation. Beyond just training on how to handle a working dog, these volunteer handlers learn how to be silent in times of crisis. “Learning to be quiet, at first, is hard because you want to talk all about the dog and that’s the last thing people want to hear in a situation like this,” she says.
In addition to Fear, Cubby has 10 handlers that she works with, and Fear’s congregation has a second LCC comfort dog named Devorah.
The Lasting Pawprints of Compassion
Each dog in the LCC’s program has a handout card featuring their name and a bible verse. When I met the dogs who visited my high school nearly a decade ago, my friends and I referred to these tokens as “trading cards,” and, yes, we tried to collect them all. I still have Isaiah’s trading card to this day—a reminder of the compassion this creature touched me with when the world seemed too tragic and violent for a 17-year-old to comprehend.
The Uvalde school shooting has resurfaced memories and emotions that I experienced during the Sandy Hook tragedy. It’s a cloud of sadness that lingers, and I’m not sure how long it will last. But it brings me great comfort to know that these dogs, and others like them, are on the ground in places like Uvalde and Tulsa, Oklahoma, doing the difficult, emotional labor of shouldering the burden so that people who are suffering can have even a moment of happiness in their greatest time of need.
“It has been one of the most rewarding, time-consuming, stressful parts of the ministry that I do, but I wouldn’t change it in a heartbeat,” Hetzner says.