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‘Comfort Dogs’ Provide Solace in Connecticut

A young boy pets Abby, a Golden Retriever, as Barnabas, stands at left at a memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook School shooting in the center of Sandy Hook Monday, December 17, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The dogs were among nine therapy dogs brought to Sandy Hook from Portage, Indiana, with the Holy Cross Lutheran Church to help mourners cope with the devastating loss. Seven of the dogs were brought to a private space where the Sandy Hook students were gathered to comfort them.   (Cloe Poisson/Hartford/Courant/MCT)

A young boy pets Abby, a Golden Retriever, as Barnabas, stands at left at a memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook School shooting in the center of Sandy Hook Monday, December 17, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The dogs were among nine therapy dogs brought to Sandy Hook from Portage, Indiana, with the Holy Cross Lutheran Church to help mourners cope with the devastating loss. Seven of the dogs were brought to a private space where the Sandy Hook students were gathered to comfort them. (Cloe Poisson/Hartford/Courant/MCT)

Newtown, Conn. — Maili Pieragostini, 6, opened a box of crayons, selected one and drew a butterfly on a piece of folded paper.

The artwork was for her friend, Charlotte Bacon, 6, who was killed just the week before in last the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As Maili worked on her card for Charlotte at a local tutoring center, she looked up as a line of police cars passed by, followed by a hearse.

Watching her young daughter, Katja Pieragostini dabbed her eyes before regaining her composure and explained that her daughter’s elementary school — Head O’Meadow School — was closed on this day due to what police said was an anonymous threat. Pieragostini said she decided to bring her daughter to Excel Tutoring to spend time with “comfort dogs” provided by Lutheran Church Charities.

Pieragostini said she wants her daughter’s life to get back to normal, including going back to school. But with school canceled, the trip to Excel Tutoring to see the dogs proved a good distraction, she said.

The golden retrievers — nine in all — arrived in Newtown from Illinois at the request of Christ the King Lutheran Church and made their way through town. Trained to be calm and social, the dogs were available to provide comfort and solace to those affected by the tragedy, said Dona Martin, coordinator of the charities’ K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.

The comfort dog ministry program began in 2008 following a shooting at Northern Illinois University, and Martin said the dogs have helped during a number of devastating situations since. Some of the dogs were in New York and New Jersey to comfort people affected by Hurricane Sandy, she said.

The charity sent nine of its 50 dogs to Newtown. The need was so strong that the dogs and their handlers were divided into teams and sent to different areas of the shocked and grieving community.

“There’s such a huge demand,” Martin said.

On the Tuesday after the shootings, the dogs started their day at Newtown High School, where they were introduced during a school assembly, Martin said. The students gave the dogs green and white ribbons — the colors of Newtown — to wear in memory of the victims, Martin said.

Eventually, two of the dogs — Ruthie and Hannah — stopped at Excel Tutoring, a for-profit business that provides one-to-one academic tutoring.

Pauline Crisci-Gonclaves, Excel’s executive director, said she thought it was important to take care of children’s emotional well-being as they struggle to deal with the tragedy.

“They need to be happy,” she said.

And it’s not just children that benefit from contact with the dogs, Martin said. Parents need comfort too, and people of all ages have stopped to pet the dogs, she said, as they visit the many memorials that have cropped up around town.

The dogs have also attended vigils in honor of the victims.

Those who encounter the dogs “are very grateful,” said Barb Granado, a volunteer at Lutheran Church Charities.

The dogs remained in Newtown for about a week. “If we are needed, we’ll come back,” Martin said.