How comfort dogs helped Aurora begin to heal after shooting

How comfort dogs helped Aurora begin to heal after shooting

  • Golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry and their handlers recently visited schools, churches and first responders in Aurora. From left are comfort dog Adeena, Don Tursman with comfort dog Caleb, and Deb Anderson with Ladel.

    Golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry and their handlers recently visited schools, churches and first responders in Aurora. From left are comfort dog Adeena, Don Tursman with comfort dog Caleb, and Deb Anderson with Ladel. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

  • Golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry and their handlers recently visited schools, churches and first responders in Aurora.

    Golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry and their handlers recently visited schools, churches and first responders in Aurora. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

  • Golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry and their handlers recently visited schools, churches and first responders in Aurora. From left are Mike Millett, law enforcement handler, with Eve, and Patrick Quinn, LCC K-9 Police Ministry Coordinator, with Shiloh.

    Golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry and their handlers recently visited schools, churches and first responders in Aurora. From left are Mike Millett, law enforcement handler, with Eve, and Patrick Quinn, LCC K-9 Police Ministry Coordinator, with Shiloh. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

  • Golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry and their handlers recently visited schools, churches and first responders in Aurora. From left are Becky Kolzow with Marie, Tom Bartnik with Cyrus, Jenni Hoffmeyer with Tobias, Arlene and George Schiestel with JoJo, and Mike Sutter with Eunice.

    Golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry and their handlers recently visited schools, churches and first responders in Aurora. From left are Becky Kolzow with Marie, Tom Bartnik with Cyrus, Jenni Hoffmeyer with Tobias, Arlene and George Schiestel with JoJo, and Mike Sutter with Eunice. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

 
Posted2/26/2019 6:00 AM

They've gone to Sandy Hook Elementary School, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Las Vegas in recent years to offer comfort in the wake of mass shootings.

Now, golden retriever comfort dogs -- trained by volunteers with Lutheran Church Charities, based in Northbrook -- stayed closer to home. Lutheran churches in Aurora invited them to help in the healing process at local schools, churches and with first responders after the Feb. 15 mass shooting at the Henry Pratt Co. warehouse that left five employees dead and five police officers injured.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As soon as school resumed last week, a team of 20 golden retrievers and their handlers were dispatched. Additional teams worked in schools throughout the week, calming anxious children and staff who were on a soft lockdown during the incident.

They also were on hand at the Henry Pratt Co. on Monday, to calm employees on their first day back to work after the shooting.

Lutheran Church Charities officials worked with a pair of local churches -- Iglesia Evangelical Lutheran Church and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Aurora -- and with Aurora city officials to help bring comfort to those affected by the shooting.

It's what these dogs and their handlers are trained to do as part of the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry within Lutheran Church Charities.

"In times of crisis or disaster, people need an opportunity to process what they went through, especially children who often don't understand why such a horrific thing, like a shooting, happens," says Tim Hetzner, president and CEO of Lutheran Church Charities.

"Petting or hugging a comfort dog helps them to relax," he adds, "and begin the healing process in a safe, nonthreatening way."

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Kristen Stapleton, a handler from St. John's Lutheran Church in La Grange and its dog, Angel, was among the teams to go into the schools.

"We saw lots of smiles and the comfort dogs got lots of hugs," Stapleton said. "Several students even asked if the dogs were there to protect them from a shooter. The comfort dogs were clearly needed."

Sue Kessler, another handler from Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Elburn and its dog, Chloe, also went into the schools. While they met mostly with small groups of students and their counselors, she vividly remembers one girl who came in with tears in her eyes.

"She took one look at the comfort dogs and she showed signs of joy," Kessler said. "At first, she didn't say anything. She just a had this look of peace and joy on her face.

"She came back about an hour later to spend a bit more time," Kessler added, "but this time she had a lot of questions while petting the comfort dogs."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Handlers with the organization's K-9 Police Ministry -- who are current and former law enforcement members -- and their comfort dogs met with members of the Aurora Police Department.

Patrick Quinn, who is retired as a detective sergeant with the Carol Stream Police Department, runs the ministry.

It was formed in 2017 to serve first responders and their families after crisis situations. Last week, handlers not only visited with Aurora police officers, but they also held a special briefing to emphasize ways for them to maintain wellness.

In both ministries, handlers are trained to be active listeners, Hetzner says. They do not initiate conversation about the incident but let the dogs do the interacting. Church leaders say the dogs offer a bridge to compassionate ministry, opening doors for conversation.

"Our comfort dogs, and their handlers, are present with mercy and compassion," Hetzner adds, "to listen and pray with or for all those who were impacted by this tragedy."

The K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry began in 2008 with four golden retrievers, Hetzner explains. There are now more than 130 trained comfort dogs in 23 states.

"We like to have boots and paws on the ground within 24 hours of being invited," Hetzner adds. "We never go unless we're invited, and we never charge for our services."

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