Newtown Dog and Little Girl
In the days since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the small Connecticut town of Newtown has seen a continuous outpouring of compassion — and not just from humans.

Nine very special Golden Retrievers traveled nearly a thousand miles this weekend from Addison, Ill., to Connecticut to do what they do best — lend a consoling cuddle. They’re comfort dogs with the K-9 Parish of Lutheran Church Charities, and a Newtown church invited them to the grieving town to provide relief and cheer, if only momentary, for the adults and children there.

We caught up with LCC’s canine coordinator, Dona Martin, who’s in Newtown with her dog Ruthie.

Q. What is the role of these comfort dogs in Newtown?

A. Dona Martin: "They show mercy and compassion to the people that are hurting here. Some of these children haven’t smiled in days; and the parents, the same. Somehow just petting the dogs gives them comfort, and smiles come on their face. Parents are just thanking us tremendously for being here. We've had people rolling down their windows as they’ve driven by in cars, just saying, ‘Thank you for being here.’"

Q. What reactions to the dogs have stood out to you most since you've been there?

A. "A mother had said to us, ‘My child has not spoken in days.’ And she just started, as she was petting the dog, talking to the dog. Those are really poignant times for us."

Left to right: Dona Martin with Ruthie, LCC president Tim Hetzner, Dan Fulkerson with Prince, Karen Fulkerson, Pastor Tim Engel with Barnabas, Tim Griffin with Abbi, Tim Kurth with Luther and Lynn Buhrke with Chewie.

Q. Do you find that comfort dogs have a way to uniquely connect with children?

A. "I think they can connect with anybody, children or adults. There’s no age limit that doesn’t need comfort. But, of course, the children love to see the dogs."

Q. Why are the LCC comfort dogs all Golden Retrievers?

A. "We just find that the Golden Retrievers are very approachable and teachable. Young kids like them. Older people like them. They’re very soft and cuddly, and it’s a pleasing breed."

Q. Do you find that Goldens have certain breed characteristics that make them cut out for this kind of work?

A. "They do have a great instinct to gravitate to people that may need them. Sometimes our dogs will keep taking us over to people, and we just won’t know what the reason is."

Q. We understand that the K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs group started in response to another school shooting back in 2008. Can you tell us about that and the subsequent work the group has done?

A. "The program started because of the shootings at Northern Illinois University. We were invited as part of another canine group to join. And then we realized that there were many people who needed comfort, more than just after that disaster.

Our dogs go to visit veterans, nursing homes, hospitals, schools. We did disaster relief work in New Orleans, Joplin, Henryville. We have had canines and volunteers on the East Coast, in New York and in New Jersey after Sandy."

To donate to the families affected by the tragedy in Newtown, visit the My Sandy Hook Family Fund or the Newtown Memorial Fund.