In the months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, kids returning to classes were startled by ordinary sounds.
Rich Martin remembered when a chair screeching across the floor or a door slamming shut could "create quite a stir" for Sandy Hook students settling into a new building several miles away from where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults in the Newtown, Conn., school.
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The community turned to "furry counselors," golden retrievers dispatched by the K-9 Comfort Dogs Ministry. Assigned to a school office affectionately called the "Dog House," canines brought a calming presence for students.
"I think the kids see the dogs as safe," said Martin, a Comfort Dogs director. "The dogs don't ask any questions."
Lutheran Church Charities, an Addison-based group that runs Comfort Dogs, has since decided to permanently station two golden retrievers in Newtown.
"Our ministry is a ministry of presence," Martin said. "We're just there with people in time of need."
As Comfort Dogs expands its reach -- more than 400 handlers are spread across about a dozen states -- organizers are trying to keep up with demand for dogs equipped to respond to victims of senseless tragedies and natural disasters. Even more regular are the requests for canines to visit hospitals, churches and veterans organizations.
To meet those needs, Comfort Dogs has announced a partnership with Harper College to train handlers in a new online course beginning Jan. 27. At the end of eight weeks, students can work firsthand with Comfort Dogs on their way to earning a handler certificate.
Martin said teaming with Harper provides volunteers with a more in-depth look into breeding, training methods and animal-assisted therapy.
"It will give our handlers and trainers more of a complete background," the Lake Barrington man said.
Martin and Deanne Pawlisch, program leader of Harper's veterinary assistant program, designed a curriculum that also will explore grooming and the health benefits of being around dogs. Both Martin and Pawlisch cited studies that showed petting canines can lower blood pressure.
"Overall, they're very good-natured and friendly and very well-behaved," Pawlisch said.
The dogs are no amateurs. The golden retrievers have won high academic honors from the Suffolk University president, who named Comfort Dogs "honorary doctors of healing," after dogs visited with students in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Each canine comes with a business card and a Facebook page where followers can keep up with their duties. At 8 weeks old, puppies start a rigorous regimen on par with the groundwork for service dogs.
As for their human companions, Comfort Dogs is encouraging past and future volunteers to sign up for the Harper course, Martin said.
"We just feel it will make them a better, more well-rounded handler," he said.
Tuition for the online course and a two-day practicum in April is $225 each. For details, call (847) 925-6300 or visit harpercollege.edu/ce.