The Corner

Comfort Dogs in Newtown Help Kids (and Adults) Deal with Grief

We’ve got a slideshow on the homepage with pictures of a pack of golden retrievers that were dispatched to Newtown, Conn. to spend time with people affected by the shooting. They’re part of the Lutheran Church Charities K–9 Parish Comfort Dogs. Tim Hetzner, the president of Lutheran Church Charities, told me that the group has 60 dogs (all goldens, because of their friendly dispositions and very pettable fur) in six states. The dogs help disaster survivors process trauma and come to grips with the horrific situations they’ve faced.

“Dogs are actually furry teddy bears,” Hetzner says. “They’re counselors with fur. Kids relate to that — and adults.” The group sent eight dogs to Newtown, along with handlers trained to help people talk about grief. Hetzner explains that petting a dog lowers your blood pressure, which relaxes you and makes you feel more open. This makes it easier for people to talk about what they’ve experienced. Some counselors have told Hetzner that having a dog present for the first counseling session with a student can trim off two to three sessions, since kids can be much more open and comfortable when they’re with a dog.

One boy from Newtown, who witnessed the shootings, hadn’t talked about the experience at all until he spent time with one of the comfort dogs yesterday, Hetzner says. After petting a golden retriever for a while, he started telling the dog about what happened in his classroom.

Each dog has its own Facebook page, Twitter handle, and e-mail account (the group has a Facebook page as well), and people who interact with the dogs can friend them, write them messages, and send them e-mails. This helps the charity recognize if people need additional help.

“They’re God’s creatures,” Hetzner says. “My faith believes that creation was given to be an instrument to help man, and the dogs certainly are that.”

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