One boy confided in the gentle-faced golden retriever about exactly what happened in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day—which his parents said was more than he'd been able to share with them. A little girl who hadn't spoken since the shootings finally started talking to her mother again after petting one of the "comfort dogs." Groups of teenagers began to open up and discuss their fear and grief with each other as they sat on the floor together, all stroking the same animal.
The dogs are therapy dogs—professional comforters that were brought to Newtown, Connecticut, almost immediately after the horrific shootings on December 14 that left 20 young children and 6 staff members dead.
Tim Hetzner, leader of the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K9 Comfort Dogs team, traveled to Newtown with nine specially trained golden retrievers and their volunteer handlers from the Addison, Illinois-based group.
Using a local Lutheran church as their base, the K9 teams have spent the past few days visiting schools, churches, activity centers, and private homes in the community. They only go where they're invited and are careful to let people approach the dogs instead of vice versa, in case anyone is afraid of or allergic to the animals.
Counselors With Fur
The response to the dogs has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Hetzner.
"A lot of times, kids talk directly to the dog," he said. "They're kind of like counselors with fur. They have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don't judge you or talk back."
The dogs are also used to reassure victims of natural disasters—most recently, Superstorm Sandy—and to brighten the days of nursing home patients. Hetzner said he got the idea after seeing how well students responded to therapy dogs in the wake of a 2008 school shooting at Northern Illinois University. Now, in addition to the core of 15 that make up LCC's K9 Comfort Dogs team, the group has deployed about 20 other dogs to be based in schools and churches that apply for them.
The human volunteers' main job is to make sure the dogs don't get burned out, which means taking a break to play ball or nap after about two hours of work. Although some handlers have a background in counseling or pastoral care, "the biggest part of their training is just learning to be quiet," Hetzner said.
"I think that's a common mistake people make in crisis situations—feeling obligated to give some sort of answer or advice, when really, those who are hurting just need to express themselves."
The Human-Canine Bond
Why does petting a dog make us feel better? It's not just because they're cute, says Brian Hare, director of Duke University's Canine Cognition Center.
The human-canine bond goes back thousands of years. Dogs descend from wolves and have been attracted to humans ever since we began living in settlements—a source of tasty garbage. That created an advantage for wolves to live near humans, and since it tended to be the less aggressive wolves that could do this more effectively, they essentially self-domesticated over time, according to Hare.
Part of what makes dogs special is that they are one of the only species that does not generally exhibit xenophobia, meaning fear of strangers, says Hare.
"We've done research on this, and what we've found is that not only are most dogs totally not xenophobic, they're actually xenophilic—they love strangers!" Hare said. "That's one way in which you could say dogs are 'better' than people. We're not always that welcoming."
People also benefit from interacting with canines. Simply petting a dog can decrease levels of stress hormones, regulate breathing, and lower blood pressure. Research also has shown that petting releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection, in both the dog and the human.
Do Dogs Have Empathy?
In situations like the Newtown shootings, it makes a lot of sense that dogs would be an effective form of comfort, says psychologist Debbie Custance of Goldsmiths College, University of London.
"Dogs are social creatures that respond to us quite sensitively, and they seem to respond to our emotions," she said.
Custance recently led a study to see whether dogs demonstrated empathy. She asked volunteers to either pretend to cry, or just "hum in a weird way." Would the dogs notice the difference?
"The response was extraordinary," she said. Nearly all of the dogs came over to nuzzle or lick the crying person, whether it was the owner or a stranger, while they paid little attention when people were merely humming.
"We're not saying this is definitive evidence that dogs have empathy—but I can certainly understand why people would think they do, at least," Custance said.
Other animals can also be useful in what's known as "animal-assisted therapy." The national organization Pet Partners has 11,000 registered teams of volunteer handlers and animals that visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and victims of tragedy and disaster. Although most of the teams use dogs, some involve horses, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and even barnyard animals like pigs and chickens.
The presence of an animal can help facilitate a discussion with human counselors or simply provide wordless emotional release, said Rachel Wright, director of Pet Partners' therapy animal program. The group plans to deploy several teams of therapy dogs to Newtown in the near future, working closely with agencies that are already present in the community, she said.
To some, the idea of sending a dog to a grieving person might seem too simplistic. But Custance says that very simplicity is part of what makes the connection between humans and canines so powerful.
"When humans show us affection, it's quite a complicated thing that involves expectations and judgments," she said. "But with a dog, it's a very uncomplicated, nonchallenging interaction with no consequences. And if you've been through a hard time, it's lovely to have that."