In the wake of the devastating mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a 19-year-old gunman killed at least 17 people on Feb. 14, a unique group of veteran grief workers were on the scene within 24 hours to help the mourning community of students and adults cope during the aftermath.
Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs deployed 19 animals and 37 handlers at the request of school administrators. No strangers to human heartache and tragedy, this specially trained group of AKC-registered golden retrievers are part of a ministry that began with four dogs in 2008. Galvanized by the events of Hurricane Katrina, this comfort animal network has grown to approximately 130 dogs stationed throughout 23 states. The LCC dogs visited Las Vegas in the fall, and have also visited those affected by the tragedies in Orlando, Sandy Hook, Sutherland Springs, Boston and more.
The dogs begin training at 8 weeks old, and they are taught to work with multiple handlers, so that they can work every day. They aren’t owned by the handlers or individuals, rather they are owned by Lutheran Church Charities or the church or school where they are placed.
Dogs like Sasha, Jacob, Tobias and more are not only trained to comfort students and parents, but they also work alongside veterans and police officers (active and retired), who act as their handlers. From a young age, these pups become accustomed to working with all ages of people from all walks of life.
When there is a crisis or disaster, they only go where they are invited. “Once we get the invite, we try to put boots and paws on the ground within 24 hours,” Tim Hetzner, President & CEO of the Illinois-based Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs, tells PEOPLE. “We had a dog on the ground that evening [in Parkland, Florida] doing some prayer vigils, and the rest of the dogs came in the next day serving that community in the centers where the high school kids were gathering.”
Currently, the dogs and handlers in Parkland are offering their unique service to about a thousand people, students and adults, who have gathered in places like Pine Trails Park. Hetzner tells PEOPLE the dogs will be visiting seven local schools in total.
“When somebody pets a dog, they relax. And when they relax, they’re more likely to talk about what they’ve gone through. That’s a key part of the healing process,” says Hetzner. “A person will open up quicker with the presence of the dog than without. We’re there to listen, to hug [and be hugged]. The dogs are trained to either sit or lay on the ground. They’re not aggressive. They don’t bark or bite. A lot of the time, the dogs will just lie on the ground and people will lie on top of them.”
Hetzner tells PEOPLE that the dogs in deployment now will be “flipped” in about six or seven days. At the point, they’ll bring in another group of dogs and handlers, because their work is so emotional.
“The dogs take on the emotions of the people who pet them,” says Hetzner. “We have to give our dogs a break every hour and a half or two hours; take the vest off, chill out a little bit, play a little ball and then come back on. Same with our handlers. You cry with those who cry.”
It’s important to note that the ministry does not call the animals “therapy dogs” or “service dogs.” They are called “comfort dogs” for several reasons, and the difference in the training is multifold.
“Our dogs start at 8 weeks old, so we know the whole history of the dogs. We have apprentice trainers, which are volunteers that work with a professional trainer on our staff, and that dog is trained right from the beginning to work with multiple people,” says Hetzner.
“They work with all age groups, and they’re trained not to jump up, not to be distracted from any type of noise, including gunshots because they [work at] military funerals. They’re very highly trained — to the level of a service dog — but we don’t call them that because we’re not disabled. No groups that I am aware of have this extensive of a training program, which follows a minimum of one year to generally 18 months until the dog is ready to be placed.”
The dogs also work with multiple handlers, at least five different people, so they’re able to go to work every day.
“With some other comfort dogs, you’re at the whim of the schedule of the individual for the dog to go out, but in our case we have multiple people who can take the dog out to work. All our dogs are trained with the same commands,” Hetzner tells PEOPLE. “We also train caregivers: The dogs have two sets, a primary and secondary, and that’s where they go at night. The responsibility of the caregiver is to take the comfort dog vest off, let the dog be a dog, make sure they’re brushed, feed the dog, play ball with them, make sure their vet records are all kept up to par and love on them. Then, in the morning, the dogs are picked up and they go to work. They work every day — hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes.”
Much like other professionals, all of the LCC comfort dogs have their own email, Facebook and Twitter accounts. They also have business cards with their face on it.
“We don’t do that to be cute, we do that because anyone who pets one of our dogs gets their business card,” explains Hetzner. “Many times they will message the dog and talk to the dog as if it’s a person. We have to type for our dogs to respond, but it’s an extension of the ministry.”
Hetzner say that even though all the dogs are golden retrievers, they’re each unique. They look different and have distinct personalities.
“When they’re vested, they know they’re working. They connect with people, and that’s the key with helping with people. When people pet a dog, they relax. And when they relax, they talk about what they went through, that’s part of the healing process — to talk about what happened in a safe environment. That’s what we have in Florida right now,” says Hetzner.
Each crisis is different, he says, and they try not to compare one with another.
“What we have down in Florida is some students whose grief [is being] taken out in anger to make a change, which can be a good thing. But dealing with your grief in anger is also not always the best way of dealing with grief. So, we’re allowing the kids who are very angry to just chill out a little bit and pet a dog,” Hetzner tells PEOPLE.
“When Sandy Hook happened, we had dogs there the first day the schools opened back up. We have had a dog in that school every day since, even when they moved to a new school. In fact, we have two dogs placed in that area. Our dogs regularly go into schools. They help with tragic deaths, suicides, the death of a well-loved teacher. They are there for the people to pet the dog and talk to it about the person who is deceased. It brings a healing aspect in so many different situations.”
The more the dogs go out, the more media coverage they get. People now know to just call and ask for an emergency site visit. The organization pays all of its own expenses, including transportation, hotels and meals. (To help donate towards these services, click here.)
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“The beauty of a dog is they have a sixth sense to know when somebody is hurting. Plus, our dogs are very good listeners. They’re confidential, they don’t take notes and they’re not judgmental. I don’t have too many friends who have all those qualities at one time, but a dog does,” says Hetzner.
“Even though I refer to them as Christian dogs, not one of our dogs has gotten into a theological argument with anybody. They’re a gift from God to engage and help people during times of crisis.”