On the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 14, one day after a mass shooting took place at Michigan State University, multiple dogs and their handlers traveled from states away to provide comfort to students on campus.
With over 130 K-9 comfort dogs serving in more than 26 states, Lutheran Church Charities, also known as LCC, is able to deploy their services within 24 hours of an invite. As one of the many organizations that brought comfort dogs to campus during this time, students might see their golden retrievers across campus sporting a blue vest.
LCC deployed six of their comfort dogs to campus that Tuesday. With three dogs from Indiana, two from Ohio and one from Michigan. Most handlers traveled across state lines for MSU students as they coped with the tragedy.
Handlers brought the dogs to the vigil hosted that night, local coffee shops as well as stood by the Spartan Statue and The Rock throughout the week to provide a comforting presence.
LCC also brought the dogs to Sparrow Hospital to visit with the first responders and the medical staff that has been treating the victims.
The dogs then visited the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, where one of the victims, Brian Fraser, was chapter president. They also went to Landon Hall to visit with students who live in on-campus dormitories.
“We sort of station ourselves so that when people are walking by, they can meet us,” LCC K-9 Crisis Response Coordinator Bonnie Fear said.
When they stationed dogs at the statue, Fear said students had an emotional response when they caught sight of the golden retrievers.
“We had tears and then they ended up with smiles,” Fear said. “They will cry and talk and then when we are ready to leave, they end with a smile – so it definitely affected them emotionally in a very positive way.”
In order to provide the best comfort possible, Fear said the handlers debrief at the end of every day and express their feelings so that they can wake up the next morning and do their job without holding the weight of the tragedy on their shoulders.
LCC, which is headquartered in Addison, Illinois, launched their comfort dog ministry in August of 2008.
The Director of Communications for LCC, Debra Baran, said the ministry launched the program in response to the Northern Illinois University shooting, which hit close to home for the organization due to the proximity of the incident.
LCC’s then-president Tim Hetzner thought back to the aid they provided following Hurricane Katrina, when many families refused to leave their homes without their dogs. He saw the bond between K-9’s and humans and decided to gather up a few golden retrievers to train and bring to the campus to provide solace to the students.
After seeing the safe presence the dogs provided, the church’s fleet of comfort dogs grew and so did the number of places they had visited to help.
Over the years, LCC has deployed their comfort dogs across the country to different tragedies such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas and the Oxford High School shooting.
Baran said comfort dogs are good for traumatizing situations such as shootings because you don't have to talk to the dog about what you went through, you can just hug them and feel their warmth while you release your grief.
The dogs can be almost human-like in the sense that they know what to do when working — be well-behaved and approachable. But when the vest comes off at the end of the day, they can resume regular dog activities such as playing catch and running around.
Although mainly known for their comfort dogs, LCC is also the organization responsible for placing the blue hearts on the white crosses that are often seen in remembrance of victims of mass shootings. When they came to MSU, they also placed three of those crosses near the rock in honor of the three victims who died in the shooting.
“We have a lot of other purposes for those hearts. They’re very well known for these events because it allows the community ... whether it be a school community or a local community, to just kind of feel like they can share a message with a family,” Baran said.
Hope Kortb, one of the handlers who traveled from Indiana to bring the comfort dog, Dove, said she wants students to know that there are people from all over that care about them.
“We care and we are praying for them and it’s outside of even their community that people care about them,” Kortb said. “Just know that we are still thinking of you and praying for everyone in this situation.”