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Dogs arrive in Newtown to comfort survivors

Published December 16, 2012 4:57 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Chicago • A team of golden retrievers made an 800-mile journey from the Chicago area to Newtown, Conn., over the weekend to comfort people affected by the shootings Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Lutheran Church Charities sent about 10 of the dogs for residents who want to pet them while they talk or pray with the dog's handler, said Tim Hetzner, president of the Addison, Ill., organization.

"Dogs are nonjudgmental. They are loving. They are accepting of anyone," Hetzner said. "It creates the atmosphere for people to share."

The dogs often visit people in hospitals, nursing homes and parks. Each dog carries a business card with its name, Facebook page, Twitter account and email address.

"The dogs have become the bridge," said Lynn Buhrke, 66, who is a dog handler for a female golden retriever named Chewie. "People just sit down and talk to you."

The dogs' first stop Sunday in Newtown was Christ the King Lutheran Church, where funerals will be held this week for two children who were killed in the shootings, Hetzner said.

"You could tell which ones ...were really struggling with their grief because they were quiet," Hetzner said. "They would pet the dog, and they would just be quiet."

The dogs have been helpful even to those without children in Sandy Hook Elementary School, where the massacre occurred Friday, organizers said.

"I asked (one man) how he is doing. He just kind of teared up and said: "This year, I've lost five loved ones and now this happened,' " Hetzner said. "The whole town is suffering."

The comfort-dog initiative first started in 2008 at Northern Illinois University after a gunman killed five students. A group of dog caretakers associated with Lutheran Church Charities went to the campus to provide a distraction to the student community.

The trip was so successful that weeks later students petitioned university leadership to bring comfort dogs back to campus, Hetzner said.

The initiative has grown from a handful of dogs in the Chicago area to 60 dogs in six different states, he said.