Trained comfort dogs help Sandy Hook survivors cope

In the wake of the tragic shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., seven therapy dogs from the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, part of Lutheran Church Charities, have been on hand at funerals and other gatherings to help people cope. “The dogs have become the bridge,” said Lynn Buhrke, a handler for one of the dogs. “People just sit down and talk to you.” The group was established after five people were killed by a gunman at Northern Illinois University in 2008. Discovery

The dogs all come from the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry at Lutheran Church Charities, based near Chicago. The dogs were present yesterday at Newtown High School when President Obama spoke about the recent massacre.

“Dogs are non-judgmental. They are loving. They are accepting of  anyone,” Tim Hetzner, president of the organization, told the Chicago Tribune. “It creates the atmosphere for people to share.”

People and kids often pet the dogs while they talk or pray with the handlers. Sometimes those who are grieving prefer just to spend quiet time with the dogs, receiving comfort from their assuring presence.

The dogs are deployed during national disasters. But they also handle daily matters where their soothing help is needed, such as at hospitals and nursing homes. Each dog carries a business card listing its name, Facebook page, twitter account and e-mail address so that those who connect can stay in touch.

At present, the following K-9 Comfort Dogs are in Connecticut: Abbi, Barnabas, Chewie, Hannah, Luther, Prince and Ruthie.

“The dogs have become the bridge,” Lynn Buhrke, 66, who is a dog handler for a female golden retriever named Chewie, told the Chicago Tribune. “People just sit  down and talk to you.”

Yesterday the dogs went to Christ the King Lutheran Church, where funerals are being held this week for two of the slain children.

Of kids grappling with the tragedy, Hetzner said, “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.”

Adults and seniors are also approaching the dogs, many with tears streaming down their faces. One man said the massacre brought back to life other deaths in his family. He shared that “the entire town is suffering.”

The comfort dog project has been in place for four years. It began in 2008, after a gunman killed five students at Northern Illinois University. Now 60 dogs in six states are prepared to help out when tragedy strikes.

Today, the six dogs sent to Connecticut are with surviving Sandy Hook students.

“There are a lot of people that are hurting,” Hetzner said. It’s “good for the children to have something that is not the shooting.”

Image: Lutheran Church Charities

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