How suburban dogs comforted mourners after Parkland shooting
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As deployment director of a K-9 Ministry run by Lutheran Church Charities, Rich Martin of Lake Barrington has dispatched golden retrievers and their handlers to Sandy Hook and Las Vegas, as well as to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Last month, he and his golden, Ruthie, accompanied the teams of handlers and their goldens to Parkland, Florida in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
In all, Martin was able to mobilize 19 dogs and 39 handlers -- from 10 states -- who arrived in Parkland one day after the shootings. The next week, as teachers and students began returning to school, another 12 teams of dogs and handlers were in the building to greet them.
"It was very emotional and solemn," Martin says.
Other suburban dogs and handlers who rushed to the scene included Barb Granado of Arlington Heights with her dog, Hannah, and Jenni Hoffmeyer of Grayslake and her dog, Tobias.
"The kids loved us being there," Granado said. "It felt so good to be able to help."
When they first arrived, the goldens and their handlers headed to Pine Trails Park, where thousands of people, including Anthony Rizzo, converged for a candlelight vigil. Martin says there were crosses set up for each of the victims and that's where many of the mourners encountered the dogs.
"In some cases, it was relief," Martin says, "that people had this moment of happiness, that was safe and where they found unconditional love."
Church leaders say the dogs offer a bridge to compassionate ministry, opening doors for conversation. That's just what these experienced handlers found once they greeted teachers and students who returned to the school.
"They shared their stories of where they were," Martin says, "and in some cases what their fears were."
One dog, Jacob, and his handlers, Mike and Sharon Flaherty of Prospect Heights, arrived the same day as the tragedy, within hours of the shootings. They stayed through the following week, going from classroom to classroom to visit with students.
"The first day back to school, there must have been 300 to 400 kids that petted that dog -- and 30 percent of them were crying," Flaherty said. "But now, these kids just want to get back to studying."
The comfort dogs left after spending a little more than a week in Florida. From there, the 100 grief counselors on hand at the school took over.
"We like to have boots and paws on the ground within 24 hours of being invited," says Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities. "We never go unless we're invited and we never charge for our services. We cover the cost of our transportation, hotels and meals."
The Comfort Dog Ministry began 10 years ago with four golden retrievers, Hetzner explains. At last count, there now are 130 trained comfort dogs in 23 states.
Church leaders describe the service as a compassionate, human-care ministry, run with the help of individual Lutheran churches. It is the churches who sponsor the dogs and members serve as handlers and caregivers.
Since starting the ministry, the comfort dogs have been invited to respond to major disasters as well as shooting tragedies. The golden retrievers, church leaders say, are uniquely suited for the ministry, with their calming nature and lovable dispositions.
"Studies show that petting a dog lowers blood pressure and calms you down, which allows people in crisis to talk about their experiences," Hetzner says. "These dogs are active listeners, who are nonjudgmental and provide calmness to all they encounter."