Chicago “comfort dogs” sent to school shooting area

Friday morning’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has left residents of the idyllic New England town heartbroken.

Some of the Lutheran Church Charities comfort dogs — (from left) Ruthie, Prince, Barnabas, Abbi, Luther, and Chewie — and their human handlers. (Photo credit: Facebook)

As the people of Newtown attend vigils and leave tokens of remembrance at makeshift memorials near the elementary school, a Chicago-area group is hoping a little time with some canine friends will offer even a little solace to the people of Newtown during this difficult time.

Lutheran Church Charities of Addison, Ill., has deployed a group of their K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs to the town where 27 people — including 20 children, 6 teachers and administrators, and the gunman’s mother — lost their lives.

Lutheran Church Charities president Tim Hetzner explains that sometimes, after tragedy strikes, people are in need of the kind of unconditional love only a dog can give.

“Dogs are nonjudgmental,” Hetzner told the Chicago Tribune. “They are loving. They are accepting of anyone. It creates the atmosphere for people to share.”

LCC first created their K-9 Parish Comfort Dog program in 2008 during the aftermath of the Northern Illinois University shooting, when a shooter opened fire in a crowded auditorium, killing five students. Since its inception, LCC dogs have provided support for people after the devastating Joplin, Missouri tornado and, most recently, Hurricane Sandy. When they aren’t responding to tragic events, the LCC Golden Retrievers often visit hospitals and nursing homes.

Seven of the organization’s Golden Retrievers and their handlers made the 800-mile trip from Chicago to Newtown in waves Saturday and Sunday, arriving just in time for the interfaith prayer service attended by President Obama. Members of the K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs group gathered in front of Christ the King Lutheran Church last night to greet mourners. This week the church will host funerals for two of the children who were killed.

Dogs currently serving in Newton include Abbi, Barnabas, Chewie, Hannah, Luther, Prince, and Ruthie. Each Golden Retriever has his or her own Facebook page, Twitter account, and email address so the people he or she meets can keep in touch long after their first meeting. LCC’s goal is to make sure that those who are grieving can continue to benefit from the comfort dogs long term.

“The dogs have become the bridge,” explains K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs handler Lynn Buhrke. She and her Golden Retriever Chewie were among the comfort dog teams who traveled to Newtown over the weekend. “People just sit down and talk to you,” Buhrke says.

Hetzner points out that even petting a dog has its health benefits for people who are grieving.

“When you pet a dog, it reduces your blood pressure,” Hetzner added in an interview with ABC 7 Chicago reporter Chuck Goudie. “And when you relax, you’re more open to share what’s going on.”

Reaction to the group’s Golden Retrievers has been very positive so far, Hetzner says. Right away he noticed the dogs’ presence had a calming effect, even for the people who are suffering the most.

“You could tell which [people]…were really struggling with their grief because they were quiet,” said Hetzner. “They would pet the dog, and they would just be quiet.”

Monday LCC plans to bring the dogs to after-school activities for Sandy Hook students.

“There are a lot of people that are hurting,” Hetzner said.

For more information on the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs or for updates on their work in Newtown, visit their Facebook page. If you would like to help Lutheran Church Charities and their K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs continue to fulfill their mission and assist the people of Newtown, please consider donating to their cause.

Sources: ChicagoTribune.com, LutheranChurchCharities.org, ABC Chicago