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Therapy dogs are 'furry counselors' for Newtown community

As the community of Newtown grieves the loss suffered in Friday’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, a group of friendly, four-legged counselors has helped provide some comfort.

A team of nine specially-trained golden retrievers and 14 handlers sent by Lutheran Church Charities traveled from the Chicago area to the Connecticut town over the weekend to help console those in need. Some children smiled for the first time in days as they pet the therapy dogs for a calming effect. Some adults prayed together with the dogs’ handlers. 

K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs / Facebook

The specially-trained golden retrievers from Lutheran Church Charities in Addison, Ill., have helped comfort the grieving community of Newtown, Conn., after Friday's school shooting.

“They’re like furry counselors,’’ Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities, told NBC's Jill Rappaport on Tuesday. “They help people to relax. They help people to be joyful. Children that have come up to the dogs look sad, and they started petting the dogs and the smile starts coming on their face, and then the parents start smiling.’’

The dogs are specially trained to respond to crisis situations and also comfort those in nursing homes and hospitals. They travel from the organization’s home in Addison, Ill., to various areas struck by tragedy around the country like those hit by Hurricane Sandy and the tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. The dogs and their handlers will be in Newtown through Friday, according to Hetzner. Each dog has its own Facebook page, Twitter account, email address and even a business card so anyone who meets one of the dogs can keep tabs on the canine afterward.

K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs / Facebook

Residents of Newtown have reported children smiling for the first time in days when they get a chance to pet one of the comfort dogs.

“They’re here to bring unconditional love and comfort and compassion to people,’’ Hetzner said. “It helps [people] cope with their grief... [The dogs] love to be petted, and they love to love. They love everybody, and that’s the beauty of the dogs.’’

The dogs have worked from morning to night since making their first visit to Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown on Sunday.

K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs / Facebook

The nine golden retrievers and 14 handlers sent to Newtown have been available for residents from morning to night since arriving last weekend and will be staying through Friday.

“I think that it does connect the children to the innocence that has been shattered right now in the town,’’ a local resident told NBC News.

The group started in 2008 when the dogs comforted those at Northern Illinois University after five students were killed by a gunman. It began with a handful of dogs and now includes 60 dogs in six states, according to the Chicago Tribune.

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