On the Monday following the Orlando massacre, 12 golden retrievers arrived in the Florida city.
They had come to offer comfort to some of the victims of the attack, the families of those killed and the emergency medical workers, as well as anyone else in the city in need of some canine affection after the deadliest shooting in American history.
The animals are part of the K-9 Comfort Dogs team, a program run by the Lutheran Church Charities, based in Northbrook, Ill. Founded in 2008, the team has comforted victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.
Tim Hetzner, the president of the charity, said that the dogs in Orlando were helping to provide a feeling of safety, allowing those in distress to relax their guard and express their vulnerability during a difficult time.
“We’ve had a lot of people here that start petting the dog, and they break out crying,” he said.
The dogs and their 20 handlers have visited hospitals and churches, and attended vigils and memorial services.
On Wednesday, they visited some of the hospitalized victims and met with the staff of Pulse, the gay nightclub where the shooting occurred.
“People couldn’t get out of their bed, so we had to bring the dog up so they could pet the dog while laying down,” Mr. Hetzner said. “They start smiling, and in a couple cases, they started talking as much as they could.”
Comfort dogs, also known as emotional support dogs, have become a familiar sight in nursing homes, on college campuses and even occasionally in airports. Though many are not considered to be service animals under the terms of the Americans With Disabilities Act, they are often employed by therapists and medical doctors to help soothe patients.
While it’s not entirely clear whether comfort animals provide long-term benefits to those in pain, studies have shown that they can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression as well as the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are more than 120 dogs in the K-9 Comfort Dog unit, in 23 states. All of them have received extensive training similar to that of a service dog, Mr. Hetzner said, and have been taught to provide comfort without barking, jumping or getting agitated.
In Orlando, they have helped to provide a temporary calm during a traumatic week.
“With the family members, we spent time with them, and they just appreciate having something positive that’s taking place after the last few days,” Mr. Hetzner said, adding, “Dogs show unconditional love.
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