Hours after the Florida mass shooting, these comfort dogs sprang into action

When we hear of a disaster like Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., most of us wish we could do something to comfort the survivors. Fortunately, there are a few dozen volunteers with Lutheran Church Charities who know just what to do: Sit quietly and let those who are suffering pat their big, fluffy head.

Unfortunately, the 130 golden retrievers who form LCC’s K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry have been very busy lately.

Hours after news of the mass shooting broke, the LCC sprang into action to deploy its dogs to the scene. One lived just an hour away, and 16 others are currently making their way to Parkland, along with their 29 handlers, from 10 other states. At prayer vigils, hospitals, community gatherings, and eventually the school itself, the comfort dogs will be available to anyone who wants to pet them.

“When people pet a dog, they relax, and when they relax, they’re able to talk about what they went through,” Tim Hetzner, president and CEO of Lutheran Church Charities, told Yahoo Lifestyle. “A key part of the healing process is to be able to talk about what’s happened.”

The dogs only go where they’re invited, and they wait in an area to the side, in case some of those suffering are allergic or afraid of them, Hetzner said. These aren’t the amateur therapy pets that have been so derided in the news of late. The LCC trains the purebred goldens for 16 to 18 months (2,000 hours), beginning when they are just eight weeks old. Each dog is then placed with a Lutheran church or school to serve that community as needed. Then, when national disasters strike, they travel to those areas for a week at a time and work with the local counselors already there.

“They come up to you and get dog hair all over you, and then just nuzzle up to you and put a smile on your face,” Tracy Szymanski director of guest services of Sunrise Hospital in the Las Vegas area told Today of her experience with the dogs last October.

“They don’t bark, bite, jump up,” Hetzner said. “They’re trained to either sit or to lie down on the ground — it depends on the situation. A lot of times with students that are on the ground, the dog lies down on the ground, and they lie on top of the dog. They’re kind of comfort rugs with a heartbeat sometimes.”

Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, Baton Rouge, Sutherland Springs, Marshall County, Ky. — these dogs have been comfort rugs in many places reeling from a mass shooting in recent years. But the program began after a different type of disaster, Hurricane Katrina.

“We were asked by FEMA to do search and rescue with people and their pets, because at that time FEMA would not rescue pets,” Hetzner said. “Out of that we saw the value of an animal with somebody in a crisis situation, even to the point that they were willing to risk their life staying in a home that’s underwater rather than part with their pet.”

The LCC began its K-9 program in 2008, and it’s an extension of the mission to “share mercy, compassion, presence, and proclamation of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering and in need.” Like the dogs themselves, the LCC’s humans are on the scene to calm and provide comfort.

“We’re not counselors, but we’re trained to shut up and listen,” Hetzner said. “Our dogs do that also.”

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