Lisa Peterson went straight to the dogs — therapy dogs, that is — when she returned home to Newtown from a business trip to Florida upon learning of the Sandy Hook school massacre.
“I saw them and I just had to come over and hug them,” Peterson said Tuesday as she stroked Abbie Einstein and Smartie Jones, two gentle, purebred golden retrievers whose mission in life is to make people feel better.
“There’s something about that unconditional love (from dogs) that is just so nurturing,” she said. “It takes you in to the moment with the dog — and everything else horrific just melts away.”
Nearly 25,000 dogs, and their volunteer owners and handlers, are registered with Therapy Dogs International, a non-profit based in Flanders, New Jersey that sets standards for canines that “bring joy and comfort to those in need.”
Several dogs turned up in Newtown to help residents cope with their grief after Friday’s brutal killing of 20 first graders and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Police say Adam Lanza, 20, shot and killed his mother before he went to the school, sprayed bullets in two classrooms with a semi-automatic assault rifle, then turned a pistol on himself.
Ten dogs came to Newtown from far-off Illinois and Indiana via a Lutheran Church Charities “comfort dog” program that has its origins in the aftermath of the 2008 killing of five students by a gunman at Northern Illinois University.
Abbie and Smartie’s owner said his dogs — specially trained to give emotional comfort and healing — usually visit nursing homes and a center for people with autism.
For several hours, they were the center of attention at an ever-expanding teddy bear memorial by the town Christmas tree, just down the hill from the ill-starred school.
Locals, visitors, even journalists from the many TV satellite trucks parked nearby, paused to stroke and hug the dogs, aged five and nine. They appeared to relish the attention when they were not peering up at their owner Michael Jones for a treat.
“Their job is to give emotional therapy,” Jones, who also owns a border collie and two cats and knows several Newtown inhabitants through the Hudson Valley Golden Retriever Club.
“That’s why we’re here, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Another golden retriever, Dutchess, projected so much affection that few noticed she had no eyes — they were surgically removed after she contracted pigmentary uveitis, a painful eye disease seen almost exclusively in the breed.
“She does fine. She’s a happy dog,” said her owner Mark Condon, a biology professor at State University of New York and member of the Good Dog Foundation, another therapy dog network, as Dutchess snuggled up to an AFP reporter.
Dutchess, who turns 10 next month, typically drops in once or twice a week at an autism center up the Hudson River from New York where she happily mingles with children eager to brush, feed and play ball with her.
In Newtown, on the other hand, many folks responded to Dutchess by simply running their hands over her rich silky coat. “It’s been very tactile,” Condon observed. “Some people don’t even say anything — which is fine.”
In another part of town, Ken Whalen of Smithfield, Rhode Island went directly to Hawley Elementary School with his seven-year-old golden retriever Cooper to comfort kids on Newtown’s first day of school after the tragedy.
“I’ve been taking him to nursing homes since he was probably a year old,” Whalen said. “He has a lot of experience like that… I just hope he makes people happy, puts a smile on them.”