Miranda Leitsinger / NBC News Michael Cragin with his 15-month-old English bulldog, Truman. Cragin's dog is giving out free hugs as a way to help the community heal from the school shooting tragedy at Newtown, Conn.
NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Retired special education teacher Michael Cragin couldn't sleep Friday night, thinking about the tragedy that had struck his community and claimed the lives of 20 children at an elementary school.
He wanted to do something to help, and when he saw his English bulldog, Truman, Saturday morning, he suddenly knew what he could do: his beloved canine could offer the grieving members of Newtown a hug.
Cragin, 63, and Truman, 15 months, came down to the local Dunkin' Donuts shop, where he opened up the hatch of his SUV and posted a handwritten sign: “My bulldog gives hugs.”
“He wants to give them that hug and that seems to be what counts,” Cragin said. “I hope I can make their day to some extent, that's all.”
Families stopped by to pet Truman. People asked the name of the dog. Sandy Hook resident Sarah Kehoe, a fellow bulldog owner, came over and said: “Love it.” Another man said: “He's a good boy.”
“It's the type of thing that people will for that brief second leave the nightmare behind, just to hug him, and that's what I was hoping on, because I don't know what else to do,” Cragin said, recounting how two teenagers girls stopped crying for a moment as they hugged Truman.
Cragin, who has lived in Newtown for 30 years and had also been a volunteer firefighter, said he believes he will know some of the families who lost a loved one since it's such a small, tight-knit community.
“I just was numb. I couldn't grasp what happened and as I lay in bed like 4 o'clock this morning I thought, you know, maybe if I get up, maybe it didn't happen, you know, maybe it was a dream,” he said. “The fact that so many children were impacted by this is beyond words for me … I'm totally shaken by it. I can't watch the TV or anything so this is how I opted to take care of it.” Complete coverage of Connecticut school shooting
Cragin and Truman got down to the Dunkin' Donuts, where he knew there would be consistent traffic, at 7 a.m. By late morning, Truman had given out more than 100 hugs.
“I come out with the best intentions and then some people are happy,” he said. “There are others that approach him with tears and I basically remain speechless. I know I'm on the cusp of losing it ... so I have to just try to stand strong. But it's a horribly difficult time. To me, this is more gut-wrenching than 9/11 was.”
“I don't know how you come back from this," he later added, "but I know there'll be consistent and long-term efforts to do so. I just don't know how you do it from something like this.”