Dogs to help mend hearts in Newtown - chicagotribune.com K-9 comfort dogs Chewie (left), Ruthie and Luther, as volunteers from Lutheran Church Charities set out for Connecticut on Saturday. (Lutheran Church Charities photo / December 16, 2012)
By Naomi Nix
7:06 a.m. CST, December 17, 2012
A team of golden retrievers made an 800-mile journey from the Chicago area to Newtown, Conn., over the weekend to comfort those affected by the recent school massacre.
Lutheran Church Charities deployed about 10 of the canines Saturday evening for residents who want to pet them while they talk or pray with the dog's handler, said Tim Hetzner, president of the Addison-based organization.
“Dogs are non-judgmental. They are loving. They are accepting of anyone,” Hetzner said. “It creates the atmosphere for people to share.”
When the charities' dogs are not responding to a national tragedy, they will often visit people in hospitals, nursing homes and parks. Each dog carries a business card with its name, Facebook page, twitter account and email so those that meet the canine can keep in touch
“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, which is holding two funerals this week for two children who were slain during the shooting, 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 trekked to campus in hopes of providing 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.
Since then, the dogs have traveled across the nation to comfort people in the aftermath of major tragedies such as, Hurricane Sandy, and the tornado that hit Joplin, Mo.
On Monday, the dogs plan to be with Sandy Hook students for after-school activities, Hetzner said.
”There are a lot of people that are hurting,“ he said. It's ”good for the children to have something that is not the shooting.“ email@example.com