Therapy dogs from around the country are serving to comfort Orlando shooting survivors.
The dogs were among the first responders to the devastating aftermath of the Orlando massacre at Pulse nightclub which left 49 dead and another 53 injured on Sunday, June 12.
The dogs, which are mostly golden retrievers, are trained to provide empathy in devastating times.
In the hours following the shooting, the dogs and their handlers went to work. The teams were flown in from multiple states, including Iowa, Illinois, Texas, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
According to US Magazine, The Lutheran Church Charities helped coordinate the effort to bring the 11 dogs and their volunteer handlers to Orlando to offer the type of solace that only man’s best friend can bring.
— The Dodo (@dodo) June 14, 2016
The troupe included Gracie, a five-year-old golden retriever from Iowa whose handler, Jane Marsh-Johnson, explained the mission.
“You can sit there and share with (Gracie) things that you may not want to share with a human and she’ll never tell your story. That gives (survivors) the courage to sit down and pour out their hearts.”
According to CTV, Gracie is “part of Davenport’s Lutheran Church Charity K9 Comfort Dogs, an organization committed to training dogs to help people cope with traumatic events.”
The group, which started out with four dogs, has expanded to include over 100 dogs in 23 states.
Marsh-Johnson said that the dogs have been attending vigils in Orlando, meeting first responders to the massacre, and visiting the city’s counseling center.
“(The church) has invited the community to come in and meet and greet with the dogs.”
Gracie knows 25 different commands, one of which is to lie down on her side so people can rest their heads on her.
“Many are in a lot of grief of that and (Gracie) absorbs that very well.”
Gracie the Comfort Dog has her own Facebook page, and it stated that on Thursday she had visited some of those wounded in the shooting.
“Yesterday we went to the hospital to visit the victims of the shooting, spent time with the emergency room staff who had cared for the victims and spent time comforting friends of victims and the wonderful people of Orlando.
“Had to smile a lot for the many TV interviews but if it gives comfort to those who need it I will keep smiling.”
Therapy dogs are finding an ever-more significant place in society and are used by many people for personal support, including celebrities like Carrie Fisher.
On Tuesday, the Lutheran comfort dog teams visited a memorial site in honor of the victims outside of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities, told the Chicago Tribune about an encounter with one man who had been inside Pulse nightclub when the shooting began.
“He just stood there, got down and just pet the dogs. He asked a couple of questions about the dogs and then he said, ‘You know, I lost my closest friend.’ He had invited his closest friend into town that weekend.”
Hetzner added that the dogs offered many benefits. “They are good listeners, your conversation is confidential, they don’t take notes… and they show unconditional love.”
K-9 Comfort Dogs headed out again today to help Orlando nightclub survivors and families who lost loved ones. pic.twitter.com/WZD26HesxU
— Michael Williams (@MWilliamsWPTV5) June 16, 2016
According to the Lutheran Church Charities website, the dogs had “nine hours of sleep in an air conditioned motel room, a good breakfast, a leisurely morning walk and lots and lots and lots of water and Orlando here we come!”
“We were able to bring some comfort to the fire dept first responders at the vigil tonight. Met with many people who are still in shock here at the vigil.”
It’s not the first effort for this organization. The group provided comfort dogs after the killing of the 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012; the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, and the mass shooting at an Oregon community college in 2015. The dogs also provide grief therapy for children, patients in hospice care, and inmates at Cook County Jail.
[Image by Catherin888 / Wikicommons]