Fairfield Ledger
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Neighbors Growing Together | Apr 17, 2014

Dogs visit Newtown, comfort grieving children, adults

By Jennifer Viegas, for Discovery News | Dec 21, 2012

A team of seven specially trained dogs have journeyed 800 miles to help grieving children and adults at funerals and other gatherings in Newtown, Conn.

The dogs all come from the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry at Lutheran Church Charities, based near Chicago.

The dogs were present at Newton High School when President Obama spoke about the recent massacre.

“Dogs are non-judgmental. They are loving. They are accepting of anyone,” said Tim Hetzner, president of K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry. “It creates the atmosphere for people to share.”

People often pet the dogs while they talk or pray with the handlers. Sometimes those who are grieving prefer just to spend quiet time with the dogs, receiving comfort from their assuring presence.

The dogs are deployed during national disasters. But they also handle daily matters where their soothing help is needed, such as at hospitals and nursing homes.

Each dog carries a business card listing its name, Facebook page, Twitter account and email address so that those who connect can stay in touch.

The K-9 Comfort Dogs in Newtown are Abbi, Barnabas, Chewie, Hannah, Luther, Prince and Ruthie.

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

The dogs went to Newtown’s Christ the King Lutheran Church, where funerals were held for two of the victims.

“You could tell which ones ... were really struggling with their grief because they were quiet,” said Hetzner, describing children grappling with the tragedy. “They would pet the dog, and they would just be quiet.”

Adults and seniors in Newtown also are approaching the dogs, many with tears streaming down their faces. One man said the massacre brought back to life other deaths in his family. He shared that “the entire town is suffering.”

The comfort dog project has been in place for four years. It began in 2008, after a gunman killed five students at Northern Illinois University. Now 60 dogs in six states are prepared to help out when tragedy strikes.

The dogs sent to Connecticut spent a day with surviving Sandy Hook students.

“A lot of people are hurting,” Hetzner said. “It’s good for the children to have something that is not the shooting.”

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