Five Golden Retrievers and seven handlers left Addison, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, around 6 a.m. on Saturday, December 15, headed for Newtown, Conn., where residents have been shocked by a tragedy they never imagined could happen in their quaint New England town.
When news reached Addison of the shootings on Friday morning at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, staff members at the Lutheran Church Charities quickly began to plan a trip east. First to leave on Saturday were LCC president Tim Hetzner, Tim Kurth, Dona Martin and Lynn Buhrke, along with canines Ruthie, Luther and Chewie.
Their first stop was Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, where funerals were to take place for two of the children slain in the shooting. The first team was shortly followed by pastor Tim Engel, Dan and Karen Fulkerson and Tim Griffin with Barney, Prince and Abbi. Laney and Marcy Brooks, Barb Granado, Sharon Flaherty and canines Chloe, Hannah and Maggie followed, and Toni Bazon and Shami arrived on Sunday.
The K-9 Comfort Dogs and their people operate through the Lutheran Church Charities. Founded in 1947, LCC works in partnership with local churches to minister to communities locally, across the United States and abroad. The human staff of LCC, along with hundreds of volunteers, offers a range of other services to people in need as well. Following the tornado that tore through the Midwest and South on March 2, 2012, and left very few buildings standing in Henryville, Ind., LCC organized teams of volunteers for a long-term recovery program that will eventually provide 15 new homes for victims of the storm. The organization has assisted in recoveries after this year’s Hurricane Isaac and Superstorm Sandy, and is still sending teams to work in Haiti following the devastating earthquakes there in 2010. They’ve even sent aid to help end malaria in Africa.
The K-9 Comfort Dogs and their handlers provide solace to survivors following horrific events, whether natural or man-made. Abbi, Barnabas, Chewie, Chloe, Hannah, Luther, Maggie, Prince, Ruthie and Shami have attended memorial services and vigils in Newtown, and visited each day with the grieving at the high school and other locations where they are needed.
When asked how she felt about the dogs being there, 9-year-old Heather told an NBC News reporter, “They help you get over how sad it is.” Tim Hertzner told the Chicago Tribune, “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.”
K-9 Comfort Dogs was born in 2008, when a group of people and dogs associated with Lutheran Church Charities visited Northern Illinois University after a gunman killed five students. Several weeks later, grateful students petitioned university administrators to bring the dogs back to campus, and they have been comforting victims of tragedies ever since. The team has grown from just a few dogs to 60 canines in six states, according to Dana Yocum, LCC technology director.
The dogs also met with the first responders in Newtown, who could so easily have been overlooked as everyone tries to provide for families of the victims, the community’s children and school employees. “Two of our handlers and their dogs work closely with fire and police locally, and they remind us that there are different people that we need to remember,” says Dana.
There are, of course, lots of wonderful therapy dogs whose owners make them available during times of need. The K-9 Comfort Dogs are a bit different in several ways. The first is that these dogs “work” full time at this, as do their handlers. “Part of what makes us unique is that we have a dozen staff dogs,” Dana says. “That’s why we were able to deploy so quickly. On Friday we got together and decided which of the dogs would work best in this situation.” The 13-hour trip would have been too long for the older dogs, so the younger ones were chosen this time. Having dogs in-house, and staff members who are ready to leave at a moment’s notice, is LCC’s strong suit. Because they do this full time, they don’t have to worry about getting time off from another job in order to be away for an extended period. They can stay as long as they’re needed.
Another thing you notice is that all the dogs are Goldens. Dana notes that the breed was chosen for several reasons, including the fact that they are very approachable, they’re good with small children and, as she says, ‘They just want to please people.” Larger dogs are more accessible to people of all sizes, and in addition, “Goldens can handle the colder climate of northern Illinois,” says Dana.
What becomes clear as you see photos of the dogs in Newtown is that they offer a physical warmth and comfort to people, as well as perhaps a distraction from the overwhelming sadness surrounding the town. The dogs offer unconditional love, and an innocence, that may be in question for many at the moment. The dogs encourage people to talk, when they need to, and LCC staff is willing to listen along with the dogs, and to say a prayer if needed.
The Goldens and their handlers plan to stay in Newtown through Saturday.
Several news outlets, including NBC News and CNN, have reported on the K-9 Comfort Dogs’ presence in Connecticut, and they’re quickly becoming furry heroes to many. The dogs have a collective Facebook page, as well as their own individual Facebook and Twitter pages and email addresses, so people can stay in touch with them. Dana reports that last Sunday K-9 Comfort Dogs had about 900 “likes” on Facebook. As of Wednesday that number has nearly reached 17,000. Luther, the Golden that lives with Dana, has become the group’s unofficial “spokesdog” during the course of the week, thanks to an interview on NBC. Last week he had about 100 likes on his Facebook page, and he now has 2,200.
The best thing about the outpouring of support for LCC and the K-9 Comfort Dogs is that any donations that come in will first help pay expenses for the trip to Connecticut, and then, as Dana says, “will allow us to do so much more in 2013.”