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Hairy hugs alleviate pain in schools

From shootings to tornadoes, canines provide comfort to students
  • Comfort dog Addie continues to help Sandy Hook Elementary students heal after the December 2012 shooting.
  • A student reads to Addie.
  • Teachers who must stay strong for students are often most in need of the dogs, handlers say.
  • Addie still visits a different Sandy Hook classroom each day. They help start conversations about hurts or fears among students.
  • A puppy in training to become a comfort dog takes a rest with an older pal.

Students who have lived through tragedy—from Newtown, Connecticut, to Joplin, Missouri—have found comfort in a source not often seen in schools: golden retrievers.

The Comfort Dog Ministry, founded in 2008 through the national Lutheran Church Charities, sends dogs to K12 schools and universities immediately after a crisis hits to help students express their feelings as they work through the recovery process.

The charity started with four dogs in Illinois. Since then, it has expanded to some 80 dogs in 23 states. The ministry has sent comfort dogs to Boston after the 2013 marathon bombing and to western Texas after a chemical plant explosion. The dogs visit victims and their families, schools, hospitals and other community centers.

“The beauty of dogs is they have a sense of when a person is hurting,” says Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities and the founder of Comfort Dog Ministries. “They show unconditional love, they don’t take notes, they are safe to talk to.”

School counselors often tell Hetzner that including a dog in therapy can reveal the root of a student’s problem sooner, advancing the process by two or three weeks, he says.

Dozens of organizations offer therapy dogs, who are trained to work only one or two days per week with just one handler. But comfort dogs—who live with their owners—work every day, with multiple handlers, Hetzner says.

Aiding students through a crisis

Last June, a middle school student from Mahopac Central School District in New York drowned in a nearby lake. In the following days, comfort dogs Addie and Maggie from Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Connecticut visited students.

“I was struck by how students and adults affected by the loss would just gravitate toward them,” says Lynn Allen, assistant superintendent at Putnam/Northern Westchester Boards of Cooperative Educational Service. The agency, known as BOCES, provides 18 local districts with shared educational services such as a crisis response team.

“It’s often challenging to find an appropriate setting for the grieving to come in and talk about their feelings.” Allen says. “But everyone will immediately come to whatever grief center you have because they see the dogs.”

The dogs made students more comfortable in the presence of counselors, who could in turn lead more effective therapy sessions, Allen says.

Usually the dogs stay only for a few days after an emergency. But Addie has visited Sandy Hook Elementary—now in a temporary building in nearby Monroe—each week since the December 2012 shooting that left 20 first graders and six adults dead.

In the six months after, Addie and Maggie stayed in Sandy Hook Elementary full-time, greeting students as they arrived and working with some individually, says Jennifer Marr, director of the Comfort Dog Ministry at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. The next year, Addie visited classrooms on a regular basis. Third graders, who were in first grade at the time of the tragedy, get two visits per week this school year.

One student would not return to school until she was given the job of getting Addie water every morning. “It was amazing to watch her from those first days to the end of the school year, when she would come running in to see Addie,” Marr says. “Her mom tells us that Addie was a big part of her healing.”

Administrators can contact local comfort dog handlers online. There is no cost for the dogs to visit districts, though the organization accepts donations.