Heaven-Sent Canine Comfort
By Barb Granado, Chicago, Illinois
I grabbed the phone on the third ring. I was babysitting my grandkids on a Friday night in mid-December. All day I’d been so busy I’d never even switched on the computer. “Hello,” I said, trying not to sound rushed.
“Have you heard?” It was Sharon, a close friend and fellow dog handler. Her voice was pinched with strain. “There’s been a shooting at a grade school in Connecticut. Twenty first and second graders are dead. I’m sure we’re going to be called to go there, to Newtown. And, well, I just wanted to talk to you.”
My eyes flew to my grandkids, four and two and a half, sitting contentedly on the couch. Not much younger than these children who’d been…slaughtered. Beside them was Hannah, my service dog, specially trained to give comfort to trauma victims.
Sharon and I both were volunteer handlers. I’d wanted to be a help to people. But was I ready for such a huge undertaking? Was Hannah? She was just a puppy, 11 months old. I’d only had her for a few weeks. But it was more than that. A handler’s job is to stay in the background, to not show emotion.
I looked again at my grandkids. How could I do that when 20 children were dead? Twenty sets of parents facing the worst moment of their lives with virtually the whole nation watching?
I’d have to talk to Tim Hetzner, the director of Comfort Dog Ministry. For years we’d gone to the same Bible study. It was listening to his amazing stories of how the dogs touched the lives of children and adults alike that inspired me to become a handler.
Tim had started the program in 2008 after a gunman had killed five people at an Illinois university. He and some other church members had taken their dogs to the campus, hoping to offer compassion in whatever way God led them. But he hadn’t anticipated the full impact of an animal in traumatic situations.
He’d found that dogs were able to connect with the students and faculty in a way that no one else could.
“The dogs don’t judge,” was how Tim explained it at Bible study. “They’re patient and loving. And that creates a bond, where people feel safe. We just let the dogs do God’s work.”
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Tim founded Comfort Dog Ministry, part of Lutheran Church Charities. It had grown into a team of 60 dogs and handlers, with months-long training for new dogs when they were just puppies, provided by prisoners at an Illinois penitentiary. Golden retrievers, known for their sensitivity, were the breed of choice.
The team had gone to Joplin, Missouri, after the tornado there. And to New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. But most requests were from people in the area, after fires and on oncology wards, for school programs, nursing homes and the like.
I had known it wouldn’t always be easy. But this was way different. The whole nation was grieving. Dear God, I prayed. If you think I’m not ready I’ll let someone with more experience go instead.
Tim called soon after Sharon. He told me the team was ready to go. “The whole town is devastated,” he said. “I only wish we had more dogs to send. You can do this, Barb. You just have to step back and let God be in control.”
That night in bed I talked to God until sleep finally came. I don’t know how to do this, I said. How can I not respond when they’re in such pain? I cry too easily. And Hannah. I don’t know if she has the patience yet. Maybe if she was older.
In the morning I woke with an unmistakable feeling: Hannah and I needed to be in Newtown. I thought of those families and how in an instant their lives had been shattered. We couldn’t back down.