When there are no words: Dogs travel to help kids heal

Amidst the paralyzing grief following the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting, a team of golden retrievers is on site to comfort, be present and listen.
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Feb 27, 2013

Newtown High School counselors are assigned students alphabetically. When Deidre Croce looked at the list of victims, she realized that in eight short years, six would have been her students.

Those children, 20 first-graders in all, along with six adults--their principal, counselor and teachers--were killed at the hands of a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary Friday morning, Dec. 14, 2012. The following Monday, Croce, fellow counselors and teachers, still raw with emotion and their own grief, grappled with how to help students process the suffocating reality Newtown, Conn., now faced.

“That Monday the staff didn’t know what to expect,” says Croce. “We were all there with each other trying to come up with a game plan for the next day.” Amidst that uncertainty, Croce received an offer from Lutheran Church Charities. Its K-9 Comfort Dogs had arrived in Newtown that weekend and, if needed, were available to students and staff. Grateful for the comfort her own dogs had already given her, Croce jumped at the opportunity.

The team, 10 golden retrievers and their handlers, arranged to be at the high school Tuesday by the time students arrived.

That morning the student body, no longer armed with youthful invincibility, gathered in the Newtown High School gym, the usual raucous timbre of a high school assembly tempered by tragedy. Then, the dogs walked in.

“It was a divine moment,” Croce says. “The dogs arrived the minute the students sat down. There was this collective sigh.” The golden retrievers sat in a circle in the middle of the gym--beacons of everything calm, happy and adorable. “It was like a scene from a movie,” Croce says. “I just knew the power these dogs would have--I just knew. That moment set the tone for the rest of the healing process.”

Feeling safe

“I’ve never been more tired in my entire life,” Croce says of those first days following the tragedy when group student counseling was a key focus. “We’d go home and were just destroyed trying to help these kids understand this.”

Some of her high school students lost siblings, parents and former teachers in the elementary school shooting. Others struggled with the loss of security--Sandy Hook Elementary is only a mile from the high school. “This is storybook America, it really is, you just always feel safe,” Croce says. “To have that happen is really difficult to process when you’re young.”

Despite inescapable feelings of loss, the presence of the dogs seemed to help. “They were just there. It’s very simple,” Croce says. The dogs have all been trained as certified service animals. Their handlers have been trained to work with dogs and people--some are counselors themselves, though the main objective for both handlers and dogs is to simply be a source of comfort.

“The kids would just lie with the dogs,” Croce says of the group counseling sessions. She could see anxious students’ breathing slow down, their tension ease away. “They didn’t want to be alone,” she says. Croce thinks it helped the students to wrap their arms around a dog and sense that life surrounding them. “Just that warmth, that love,” she says. “It’s a comfort. It puts you at ease immediately.”

In fact, the dogs seemed to instinctively relieve the tension in any room they entered. “They know who’s most in need and go to them,” Croce says. “You can’t help but smile at that. It immediately breaks the anxiety.”

While these sessions might be expected to be full of sobbing, “they were more processing sessions,” Croce says. “The burden became a little lighter because the dogs were there. They’d pet them through the whole session. That comfort that makes you feel safe again. It did so much.”

No words

One high school student in grief counseling with the comfort dogs had a sibling at Sandy Hook Elementary. “He went up to one of the handlers and said, ‘My little brother was killed in the tragedy. Thank you for bringing [the dogs] here,’” Croce recalls. “In that moment I almost lost it.”

For those who lost someone they loved that day, for those who’d witnessed the unfathomable, talking was difficult. Some young survivors did not speak at all.

School counselors set up quiet rooms where they could bring one or two students to sit with a dog. Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities, says the first week after the tragedy, a boy who hadn’t spoken about what had happened to his classmates visited the dogs. “He wouldn’t share it with anybody else, but he’d talk to the dog,” Hetzner says.

“As they’d pet the dogs, the dogs would make them feel safe to talk,” he says. “They have great listening skills and they’re confidential. So the students would tell them their story.”

The mother of another Sandy Hook student told Croce her daughter had also spoken for the first time to one of the dogs. With the dogs there was no pressure; there was no judgment; there was even something vital in knowing the dogs wouldn’t talk back. “That’s the beautiful part. The dogs don’t say anything,” Croce says. “There were no words to comfort.”

“People think after a disaster you have to say something to a person,” Hetzner says. “They don’t need you to say anything--they need you to listen. [The dogs] look at you, they smile and they listen.”

Healing

“Every morning they’re there in the lobby--they’re like a part of our community,” Croce says. “I’m getting in trouble now because kids are cutting class to be with the dogs.”

The K-9 Comfort team has been in Newtown since the day after the tragedy. Hetzner says approximately 10 dogs have been stationed there, some rotating in and out while others, such as student favorites Ruthie and Luther, are there consistently. Croce says highly anticipated visits from comfort puppies in training--Isaiah and Addie--have brought enormous joy.

The team has now spent months aiding in the healing of Newtown. “Farther in, the need is great,” Hetzner says. “The sting starts wearing off on what happened and the reality starts coming in.” Those affected are still in different stages of grief. “We see healing in some and we see others who are just starting to open up,” he says.

Croce says her students are starting to move forward. “The kids don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she says. “They want life to go back the way it was--even though that will never happen.”

That means the dogs will no longer be a permanent fixture in the lobby. “I think now that they’ve gone through the funerals, the holidays--they’re trying to settle into a new normal,” Hetzner says. “The schools realize they can’t have dogs there every day.”

Yet Croce feels the comfort dogs did much to help residents get through some of the darkest times. “I saw teachers who thought they couldn’t get through the day,” she says. “It’s just something to know you can pet the dogs and then go back to work. I saw it every day. I still see it. The dogs are a unifying thing. They’re a symbol for us now of strength and healing.”

While the dogs make only periodic visits to the high school now, the students at Sandy Hook Elementary aren’t quite ready to let them go. So a few dogs still keep their daily post there. The school hopes that someday the Newtown Public School District might have a permanent comfort dog. “That’s the next step,” Croce says. “We’re going to make that offer to the Board of Education and hopefully we can start that process.”

Croce has high hopes that Addie will soon be a permanent resident of Newtown, Conn. “We take simple things for granted,” Croce says. “Dogs can teach us a lot of lessons. If we were more like them, the world wouldn’t be a bad place.” To learn more about K-9 Comfort or to "meet" the dogs, go to lutheranchurchcharities.org