As the nation turns its thoughts and prayers to Orlando in the wake of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, a dozen sweet canines are doing their part, too, to help bring solace to the victims, families and community affected by the attack.
Within hours of the shooting, which claimed the lives of 49 victims and left 53 people wounded, 12 comfort dogs and their handlers were busy making arrangements to travel to Florida. The group, coordinated by Chicago-based Lutheran Church Charities (LLC), includes pups from across the country, all specially trained to help people cope in times of crisis.
"We were invited by a church in Orlando, near where the attack took place," LCC president Tim Hetzner told The Dodo. "On Sunday, we put a dispatch out to our dogs across the country to see who could come out, and after making flight reservations, here we are. We try to always respond in 24 hours after being invited."
Dogs from seven states all made the last-minute travel plans to arrive to Orlando. In some cases, their work began even before touching down in Florida.
Many of the dogs have their own Facebook profiles where they offered condolences and let their friends know that help was on the way.
Eleven of the dogs arrived Monday, with one more flying in on Tuesday. Moments after stepping off the plane, it became immediately clear how much they were needed.
Even at the airport, people stopped to visit with the dogs and, with any luck, begin the process of healing.
"Everyone down here has been affected by this," said Hetzner. "Everyone loves petting the dogs. It helps them talk. When you pet a dog, your blood pressure goes down and you relax. When you relax, there's a greater chance that you'll want to talk about what you've been through."
Though their first day in Orlando is not yet over, the dogs have visited with around 300 people.
"We're here working with the victims, families and first responders — and the whole community. We'll also be visiting with the staff at the club where the attack happened. They are taking this very rough. We're keeping busy."
The dogs and their handlers plan to stay a week in Orlando, but that could be extended depending on the need. Based upon the response so far, however, they're already making a difference.
"Everyone wants to pet the dogs," Hetzner said. "Some people just want to lay on the ground with them and talk. The dogs are like a bridge for people to talk about what's bothering them. The dogs are confidential, they're good listeners and they're nonjudgmental. And talking about things is one of the most important ways to heal."