At vigils and counseling centers, in hospitals and out on the streets of Orlando, you may see a special kind of grief counselor. They listen without giving advice, offer unconditional love and are happy to just be there for you — with tails wagging.
They are comfort dogs, trained to be calm and approachable for those grieving who want to pet, hug and find the peace that man’s best friend can provide.
Dogs have been arriving from numerous organizations around the United States in response to Sunday’s Pulse nightclub massacre.
Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort Dogs brought 12 golden retrievers from seven states. Many of these dogs have provided comfort after other tragedies, from tornadoes in Oklahoma to the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The dog’s travel expense fund can be supported here.
Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities (LCC), believes these dogs make a difference, especially for those who might not yet be comfortable talking to others.
“Some people are very somber and quiet,” Hetzner explains. “But they can approach the dogs, pet them and then they start talking. Dogs are great listeners. They are nonjudgmental, confidential and they won’t interrupt. The best furry counselors out there.”
Hetzner shared the story of one man who only started opening up when he was petting one of the dogs. At first, he only said he lost a very close friend. After some quiet time with the retriever, the man revealed guilt he was experiencing.
“He had invited his out-of-town friend to come to Orlando and to go to that club,” says Hetzner. “He felt responsible for his friend’s death and was finally starting to process this and hopefully let go of that weight, as he talked with us and held onto our dog.”
The dogs are not only helping survivors of the club attack, but comforting first responders and volunteers as well.
“I used to work in those type of crisis situations when I worked in the military and law enforcement,” explains Marc Gelbke, a volunteer who came to Orlando with his dog Zoey. “I know what it is like to go through such a horrific time and if therapy dogs like Zoey can bring just a bit of sunshine to their day, it is worth it.”
Gelbke, who provides therapy dog services through Loving Paws of Clermont, spent time with some of the victim’s families and friends at one of the crisis help centers.
“Words cannot always help, but dogs are wordless,” says Gelbke. “They just provide affection, a sense of calmness. And you know how you feel when you pet a dog? That is so needed in these times.”