Suburban-based K-9 Comfort Dogs head to Orlando
When the news turns tragic, no matter the location, Barbara Granado of Arlington Heights knows what to do: Pack her bags, grab Hannah's "pet me" vest and go.
Granado is one of 20 people working with Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dogs who flew to Orlando early Monday with their 12 pooches to begin consoling those affected by the shootings at the Pulse nightclub.
"When people are hurting like this community is down here, you just know you have to go," she said.
Volunteers from the Northbrook-based nonprofit group are there on their own dime, making their golden retrievers available to help people deal with their shock, pain and confusion after the country's largest mass-shooting -- and to respond with unconditional love.
"They feel safe and the dogs aren't judgmental," Granado said about the 300 people the dogs visited Monday afternoon at two counseling centers for those affected by the attack. "They come with tears and they leave with a smile -- even if it's only for a moment."
In the hours after the shooting that killed 49 people and injured at least 53, K-9 Comfort Dogs got an invitation from Trinity Downtown Lutheran Church in Orlando to respond with a calming presence, said Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities.
The group he founded in 2008 has volunteers and trained golden retrievers in 23 states and responds to any call for help with "boots and paws on the ground" within 24 hours.
The team assembled to respond to the Pulse shooting includes members from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina.
The group's work began even before arriving at Trinity Downtown, as many travelers in the Orlando airport, also affected by their closeness to the tragedy, reached out to pet the pups, Hetzner said.
"People just are able to pet the dog, relax a little bit, smile and talk about what they're feeling," Hetzner said. "The key part of any healing process is to be able to talk about what's happened or what you're feeling."
Handlers such as Granado take a back seat to their four-legged companions, who have completed 12 to 14 months of specialized training through Lutheran Church Charities not to bark, bite or jump.
Instead, dogs such as Granado's Hannah, calmly sit or lie down and absorb a person's pain.
"The dog takes on the emotions of the person petting it," Hetzner said.
Even before attending a vigil Monday night, Hetzner said the dogs had consoled survivors who are struggling with nightmarish memories of hearing gunshots, rushing to escape, knowing they could have been killed, wondering why their Latin night party was targeted.
"It hits a lot of the social issues so there's a lot in people's minds because of this that they're confused on," Hetzner said. "But they're determined to pull together."
The group plans to stay in Orlando as long as it allows dogs to work -- seven days in a row. Tuesday calls for a visit with employees of Pulse. Later days will be dedicated to visiting medical personnel at three hospitals that treated injured clubgoers and finally offering comfort to police officers who responded to the shooting.
As the same group that has responded with comfort dogs to the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the community college shooting in Umpqua, Oregon, Lutheran Church Charities is seeking donations to cover travel costs. To donate, visit lutheranchurchcharities.org or call (224) 257-4389.