These 4-Legged Heroes Are Helping the Orlando Victims In Ways Humans Can't

(ANTIMEDIA) Support for victims of the Orlando tragedy has flowed from human beings around the world, and as people rally to show solidarity — even in unexpected places — another group is contributing to the healing process, as well: golden retrievers.

K-9 Comfort Dogs is an organization that trains golden retrievers to be therapy dogs and dispatches them to areas of crisis and natural disaster to provide relief to victims. The donation-based Illinois group, which is sponsored by Lutheran Church Charities, sends a “sea of fur” to areas where humans are in need of comfort.

After receiving an invitation from the Trinity Lutheran Church in Florida, president of K-9 Comfort, Tim Hetzner, sent 12 golden retrievers from seven states — as well as 20 human volunteer handlers — to comfort the community.

Hetzner told CBS News about one young man who had invited a friend from out-of-town to Pulse the evening of the shooting. His friend died, but he survived, leaving the young man feeling not only devastated, but guilty. “He didn’t talk to anyone,” Hetzner recounted. “He just stood there. And then slowly, he got down and started petting the dog… And then he started asking one or two questions about the dog, and then said, ‘You know, I lost my friend.’ And then he explained what had happened.

Hetzner believes the golden retrievers’ gentle nature helped the young man open up. “With a golden, you don’t feel alone, and you know that you’re loved,” he told CBS. “That helps people at the time to cope and to talk, and to see that there’s hope. There’s light.

K-9 Comfort also sent nine dogs to Newtown, Connecticut, following the Sandy Hook school shooting, where they were able to help young children, in particular, process their grief.

As National Geographic reported at the time, research helps explain why not just golden retrievers, but dogs in general, are so effective at mitigating human stress:

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.”

Further, a study by Debbie Custance, a psychologist at Goldsmith College at the University of London, concluded dogs can recognize when people are crying — and almost always offer comfort, such as nuzzling or licking, in response. Though she cautioned her study did not prove dogs have empathy, she noted, at the very least, it demonstrated why humans often believe they do.

K-9 Comfort’s dogs start 12- to 14-month training programs when they are just eight weeks old. They learn a wide variety of skills, from learning to work with people with disabilities, to walking up escalators and flying on planes. They also learn to manage their own temperaments in “distressing circumstances.” Hetzner says much of their training involves simply teaching them how to be quiet.

As National Geographic detailed when Hetzner deployed his retrievers to Newtown, they are accompanied by handlers who help them deal with the often taxing experience of comforting grieving humans. This often means simply “taking a break to play ball or nap after about two hours of work.

In Orlando, the dogs are not only working with victims of the attack, but also providing love to hospital workers, law enforcement, and members of the press, who have also felt the weight of the catastrophe.

Fortunately, K-9 Comfort is not the only organization with the goal of using dogs to help people process traumatic events. The non-profit group, Pet Partners, boasts thousands of registered volunteer handlers who provide animal-assisted therapy at nursing homes, schools, and hospitals. They are also dispatched to spend time with victims of natural disasters and other tragedies. Their pets (and handlers) made over 1,000,000 visits in 50 states last year, and though they employ a variety of animals, dogs are the most common.

This is, in part, because dogs offer something humanity has evidently not yet mastered. According to Brian Hare, director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center:

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! That’s one way in which you could say dogs are ‘better’ than people. We’re not always that welcoming.

Though much of the world struggles with this simple concept, overwhelming shows of support for Orlando appear to indicate humans might be taking a cue from their canine companions — however slowly.


This article (These 4-Legged Heroes Are Helping the Orlando Victims In Ways Humans Can’t) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Carey Wedler and theAntiMedia.org. Anti-Media Radio airs weeknights at 11 pm Eastern/8 pm Pacific. If you spot a typo, please email the error and name of the article at edits@theantimedia.org.

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