Golden Retrievers a Comfort in Grief

A group of golden retrievers mixed and mingled with grieving relatives, residents and first-responders, are currently working to comfort and heal hearts broken by a shooter who killed 20 children and six staff members in Newtown, Conn.

The Golden Retrievers wear blue vests identifying them as LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs, as they were frequently photographed by network and cable television crews. In recent months they’ve been to the Orlando nightclub shooting, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, LA, where police officers were shot, as well as to the scenes of massive floods in Louisiana.

The K-9 Comfort Dogs are a very special mission of Lutheran Church Charities,  in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Ill. The faith-based organization started with four dogs in 2008. It now has 130 golden retrievers in 25 states. The organization deploys its dogs all over the country, as well in its local communities for more traditional therapy visits in hospitals, schools, hospices and funeral homes states.

A Gift from God

The president of Lutheran Church Charities, Tim Hetzner told the Post Gazette, “We only go where we are invited.” Disaster relief has been part of the LCC mission since it was founded in 1947, but the dogs have been “one of the most effective ways of dealing with disaster,” Mr. Hetzner said. “They are a great gift from God.”

How do the dogs work their magic? They are there to be petted and hugged. They wag their tails and they listen when people talk to them.

“People in crisis will talk to a dog before they talk to a person,” Mr. Hetzner said.

The LCC move toward dogs may have started in 2005. The organization sent people to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Just FYI, I lived in New Orleans at that time.

Federal disaster officials asked them to do search and rescue for pets, Mr. Hetzner said. “We saw the value of pets. We saw people who risked their lives refusing to evacuate because they would not leave their pets behind. Some of our volunteers had golden retrievers, and we started bringing them to disasters” after Katrina.

Healing Trauma, Conscious of Compassion Fatigue

In February 2008, five people were killed and 17 injured in a shooting at Northern Illinois University, “and one of our pastors was in lockdown. The university asked us to bring dogs. They were a big hit with students.

The golden retrievers belong to Lutheran Church Charities, not to any individual. Training starts when puppies are 8 weeks old. The puppies and dogs always live in the homes of staff or volunteers, but all are trained to work with any staff member or volunteer they are teamed with.

Working at the scene of so many disasters can take a toll on dogs and people, but it’s something the organization knows how to deal with.

“When we are at a crisis, we have nightly debriefings and we share,” Mr. Hetzner said. “We look for something we call ‘compassion fatigue.’ Sometimes there is such a heavy burden you have to remove yourself for a time”.

This is truly an amazing story. If you want to help these brave pups out, you may donate via their website.

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