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Comfort dogs visit Newtown, Conn. community

Tuesday - 12/18/2012, 4:06pm  ET

prince.jpg
Prince, a K-9 Comfort Dog with Lutheran Church Charities, visits with a little girl in Newtown, Conn. (K-9 Comfort Dogs Facebook page)

WASHINGTON - The residents of Newtown, Conn., are getting help from volunteers skilled in offering comfort. And they do it without saying a word.

The volunteers are the K-9 Comfort Dogs and they're part of the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) headquartered in Addision, Ill.

As early as Saturday, Prince and Barnabas, two of the LCC K-9 Comfort dogs had arrived in Newtown, Conn. By Monday, up to 10 dogs and 14 handlers were working in the Newtown community.

Vida Johnston, director of operations for LCC explains the Comfort Dogs program has been in place for about four years. Johnston says the impact in Newtown has been immediate.

"The children just light up when they see the dogs" and the dogs offer comfort to adults, she says.

When community members encounter the dogs, handlers have been told by parents or relatives, "it's the first time the child's smiled in a couple of days," Johnston says.

She explains the dogs are specially trained. Unlike other therapy dogs who work with one individual in a very specific way, like guiding the blind, or acting as a support for people who may experience falls as the result of a neuromuscular disease, K-9 Comfort dogs are trained to work with a number of people in communities.

Like other therapy dogs, the comfort dogs must have the right temperament, Johnston says. They can't be skittish and they can't jump up on people. They need to be calm in the face of emotional outbursts.

It's also important to "have exquisite manners," Johnston adds.

All of the comfort dogs in the LCC program are Golden Retrievers. "It's what we have, it's what we know. That's not to say other dogs couldn't do this work," says Johnston.

Right now, dogs like Barnabas, Prince, Chewie and Abbi are mingling with adults and children. According to Johnston, the dogs are bridges. They allow children and adults to let out their emotions, free of fear of being judged. There's no need to put up a brave front or hold anything in with a dog.

But the animals don't do the comforting alone. Johnston says the mission is one of ministry, to offer "the compassion and mercy of Christ."

Each handler has undergone training as well. But Johnston says what happens during a visit is completely up to the individual seeking comfort. They may want a wordless exchange with the dog. They may want a chat. They may want prayers, it's all up to the individual in need. The volunteer handler takes his or her cues from what happens during each encounter.

There are dozens of dogs working in six states, and Johnston says each dog has its own Facebook page. They've gone to communities in Joplin, Mo., after the tornado and New York after Superstorm Sandy.

In some cases, a local church may request that a dog be permanently assigned to their church. That's something that could happen in Newtown.

Visit the K-9 Comfort Dogs Facebook page for more information on the program. Each dog has his or her own Facebook page so their individual adventures can be followed.

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @KateRyanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)