Therapy dogs in Orlando to help a shocked community after mass shooting

  • Agence France-Presse, Agencies, Orlando
  • Updated: Jun 17, 2016 10:56 IST
Visitors embrace near a memorial for the Orlando shooting victims. Omar Mateen, an American of Afghani descent opened fire at a gay club in Orlando on June 12, killing 49 people injuring 53 more. (AFP Photo)

When mourners filed in to a prayer vigil in Orlando this week, they hit a friendly roadblock: A team of golden retrievers sent to help soothe a community in shock with their calm, reassuring presence.

As people knelt down to pet and nuzzle the gentle creatures, burying their hands in their soft yellow coat, many breathed more easily, taking a moment to forget the horror gripping their city.

In the wake of the Pulse club massacre that left 49 dead and 53 injured, a pack of therapy dogs were flown from Illinois to the Florida city to offer comfort to traumatised victims and their families.

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On Wednesday night, the dozen golden retrievers were stationed outside Trinity Downtown church.

Shelby Gerber, a bubbly young girl who attended the vigil, lives right near the crime scene.

“My anxiety level is pretty high right now,” she said. “Sometimes you are too overwhelmed to say anything. I didn’t realise how much it really was nice to sit after service and just pet them (the dogs) for an endless amount of time. It just alleviates the pressure off your chest.”

For nearly a decade – ever since a February 2008 shooting stunned Northern Illinois University – such “comfort dogs” have become a familiar sight in the aftermath of major tragedies throughout the United States.

The Illinois team has become famous on social media for the therapy they provide. Phoebe, for one, has her own Twitter account.

In Orlando the dogs, accompanied by 20 volunteer handlers, were visiting three hospitals where patients wounded in the Pulse attack are being treated.

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As well as visiting survivors, the dogs have consoled emergency caregivers, paramedics and doctors, as well as many families of victims and Pulse staff members.

“People will talk to us and ask if we can visit a family,” said Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities, the group that sponsors the dogs’ work.

“There are some individuals who lost somebody and they’re just scared to go out of their house. So we’re going to bring comfort dogs to them.”

The dogs owned by the Lutheran Church are distinct from those managed by the Therapy Dogs International program, which brings together about 25,000 dogs volunteered by their owners to provide therapy without special training.

Hetzner’s dogs belong to the parish and are subject to training with multiple handlers that sometimes lasts over a year.

He said the training includes teaching the golden retrievers – a breed known for its gentle and affectionate manner – not to bite, lick or bark while providing therapy.

The Lutheran church program funds itself with donations, and owns about 120 Golden Retrievers in 23 states.

Three dogs from the organisation still reside at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 young children and six of the staff in December 2012.

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Hetzner originally conceived the idea after a mission to New Orleans in the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when he saw the tremendous bond those rescued had with their pets.

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