Dogs Provide Needed Comfort in Newtown After Shooting

Dogs Provide Needed Comfort in Newtown After Shooting

In the aftermath of the December shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Luther Church Charities were invited to Newtown, CT with what they call Comfort Dogs. Here's a full audio interview with Tim Hetzner, president Lutheran Church Charities, which the following story is based on.

It's unlikely Addison, IL-based Lutheran Church Charities thinks it's a coincidence that God spelled backwards is dog. "Dogs are absolutely loving, non-judgmental and pure," says Tim Hetzner, who with a contingent of dog handlers and eight Golden Retrievers -- called comfort dogs -- traveled from the Chicago area to Newtown, CT, arriving two days after 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

On the Monday after the shootings (December 17), primary school-aged children, including many who survived the Sandy Hook attack, attended events held at a local activities center. The dogs greeted people walking into the building. Perhaps it's no surprise that the presence of the dogs attracted children. And they weren't alone.

Hetzner says, "One lady came up to the dogs. She sat down, looking directly at them, and began to speak with the dogs, not the handlers. Of course, the handlers could hear."

The woman spoke quietly and was crying as she explained, "Five people were killed on my block. I have five funerals to go to. I don't know what to do. What can I possibly say to their families?"

As she cried, one dog curled up into her lap. She hugged the dog, looked at the handler and no further words needed be spoken.

"We met parents (of slain children). Of course, they're numb," says Hetzner. They want everything to return to how it was, of course, it can't. Some are angry; their emotions range. At the high school, one young man came to pet a dog. He said that his dad was a first responder. And ever since it (the shooting) happened, when he comes home at night, he doesn't talk to anyone. He asked, 'Can I bring my dad to pet one of your dogs?"'

Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities, provides a program to train the comfort Golden Retrievers. The dogs visited New York City and New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy, and Joplin. MO, following killer tornados there.

"It's never been like this.". Hetzner says he's seen homes ripped apart, but never so many hearts. The most emotional moment for him came at Newtown High School. Hetzner and his volunteers walked into the school auditorium, where they were greeted by thunderous applause. The principal was at the microphone, but he just couldn't get any words out. Finally, he asked the students to stand and hold hands, which they did. Everyone cried, Hetzner included. "I'm the father of four children myself," he says.

The dogs "attended high school" on two days, available in two different classrooms for students or faculty to pet.

Lutheran Church Charities is national ministry which offers a legion of volunteers from around the country as first responders following disasters. The ministry trains its volunteers using a FEMA-approved program. "We still have volunteers cutting trees in (hurricane-ravaged) New Jersey," Hetzner says.

When responding to disasters, Hetzner had observed how people are attracted to dogs, even neighborhood pets out for a walk. In 2008, Lutheran Church Charities initiated K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs. All the dogs in the program are Golden Retrievers, who begin their training as puppies. They are trained with a protocol similar to that used for service dogs, except these dogs' only job is to listen to people in their time of need.

"They're really just furry counselors; they keep whatever they're told confidential, and they don't even take notes," Hetzner says.

Hetzner notes that what the dogs do is indeed work for them, and can take an emotional toll. Of course, no one really knows what the dogs are understanding, but Hetzner, and most experts, believe that somehow dogs are emotional sponges.

"The Goldens never work for more than an hour to two and a half hours, depending on the dog,” he says. “Then the vest comes off. The dogs get a chance to be dogs, maybe play with a ball."

Though they make no bones about being a Christian ministry, the group doesn't proselytize. "We don't hide who we are," says Hetzner. "But we're not there to convert anyone. We are there to offer comfort at a time when people may need it the most."

Perhaps it takes a person of special commitment to faith to believe good can come from evil like that seen in Newtown, CT.  "What I've seen is that the worst of all events has brought out the best in people. And that is beautiful," Hetzner says.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services

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