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Comfort dogs draw out grief to bring healing after shootings, trauma

by Mark Kinney

Jodi and Ken Fay work with Maggie, at Christ The King Lutheran.

Given that people can relate to the pleasure of petting a dog, and the peace and joy it can bring, Ken Fay, a certified dog handler with Lutheran Church Charities’ Comfort Dog Program, said that simple act can be therapeutic for people who have experienced trauma and loss.

His introduction to the comfort dog program came as the result of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December, 2012 in Newtown, Conn., where he and his wife, Jodi, lived until last April, when they moved to Liberty Lake for his job as director of productions for byDesign Films in Post Falls.
They continue doing the comfort dog ministry from Post Falls. 

They were members of Christ The King Lutheran Church in Newtown. The pastor and congregation helped minister to victims’ families, including a member family who lost a child.  The pastor, Rob Morris, was among faith leaders who had gathered at the local firehouse that day to comfort families who had lost children.

Ken said the response
to the shooting was quick and overwhelming. People offered prayers, put up signs of support like “love you” and “stay strong.” There were teddy bears everywhere.  Love flooded into our community. 

The pastor told elders that Lutheran Church Charities called to say they were sending comfort dogs.
“None of us had heard of the program, but that Sunday, nine dog teams arrived and more came in the next weeks and months,” Ken said.

Comfort dogs helped start healing in the congregation and the community.

“They allowed us to process what had happened Friday,” Ken said. “They became an amazing distraction.  We were petting the dogs, crying, talking, processing and praying.  They were such a boost to our psyche.”

Christ The King provided support to dog and handler teams who stayed in Newtown until the next spring. 

“They gave their presence, peace and the proclamation of Christ in the darkest of places,” he said.  “They were there to hold us, cry with us, talk with us, sit with us—just giving a place to decompress our feelings.” 

The dogs, all Golden Retrievers, are love, innocence and a conduit to something normal in an abnormal situation, said Ken, noting the tragedy was particularly hard because it was the Christmas season.

Maggie was one of the original nine dogs
to arrive in Newtown.  She had only been in the program for a year. She had come from a prison program where inmates interacted with dogs to learn responsibility.”

After the Boston bombings on April 5, 2013, Maggie and another handler went to interact with survivors, families and hospital staff. 

By September, Christ The King decided to adopt the comfort dog program as Newtown Comfort.  Ken and another parishioner volunteered as program co-leaders. 

“Later our church had a Passing the Leash ceremony, when the church adopted Maggie,” he said.
Maggie stays in touch with all she visits on her Facebook page, which all the dogs have. Ken gives voice to the comfort she shares with people through the page.

Ken said God has been preparing him
for this and other ministries his entire life.  He and his wife, Jodi, were short-term missionaries in the summer of 2012, teaching English in Macau with Concordia University.
He and Jodi, who met in college at Western Connecticut University, travelled to Israel in 2011 to walk in the Lord’s footsteps, further strengthening their faith.

Jodi is also a certified comfort dog handler and they work together. When a tragedy occurs, Lutheran Church Charities contacts comfort dog teams to see which ones can respond most quickly. 

“They want paws and boots on the ground as soon as possible,” said Ken, adding that teams never go anywhere unless invited. A church usually sponsors the team.
The dogs are trained to the level of a service dog. Handling commands are standard so a trained handler can work with any dog.  If a handler has to return home, another handler can work with the dog as long as needed.

Comfort dog teams come from all over the United States, Ken said.  When they come to a disaster zone, they serve as part of a family of faith.

Handling a comfort dog in a post-disaster environment is powerful, he said, because of the effect dog and handler have on a suffering individual.

“We are a presence of hope and proclamation of mercy in a place that is terrible.  We are the hands, feet and paws of Jesus. The dogs open avenues to conversation,” he said. 

“People don’t know what to say or do.  They don’t know why they’re crying when they see us.  They don’t know what they’re feeling,” Ken said.  “Then they get down on their knees with the dog and start talking, crying or saying nothing.  They may just sit in shock.”

Ken, who is also a chaplain for a mounted cavalry unit in the Connecticut National Guard, was in Las Vegas when the shootings occurred at the country music festival last fall.  He was walking on the Las Vegas strip and heard shots from a nearby casino.  He heard the sounds of panic and anguish from the crowd.

Despite his military experience, he said he was affected by witnessing the traumatic event.  It triggered memories of Sandy Hook.

“In a military context, we expect to be shot at, but this was an innocent civilian population being attacked by evil,” he said.

Ken contacted the director of Lutheran Church Charities that evening.  They knew of the situation and dogs were enroute.  While waiting for them, Ken responded as a person of faith, interacting with news reporters, counselors and survivors.

“I tried to be in the moment with these people who were suffering,” he said.  “I had experienced it myself, so that night was horrendous personally.”

Last summer, Ken was reunited with Maggie and Rob in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and subsequent flooding.  They went to places where people gathered, such as supply distribution centers.  They encountered people experiencing uncertainty and anxiety, some because they were separated from their own pets.

They also ministered to a dying man in his home in Rockport, Texas.  Although he had been unresponsive, he responded to Maggie’s presence when she gently climbed into bed next to him and laid her head on his stomach. 

She was there for 40 minutes while Rob administered a commendation for the dying service.  It was a blessing to the man’s family, Ken said.

Each comfort dog team has a leader, or “top dog,” who coordinates the ministry in the church.  The dog lives in a home with a caretaker.  The team also has a “comfort voice” to handle the team’s social media presence and correspondence.  Each dog has a Facebook page. 

The team has a scheduler to handle logistics of sending dogs where they are needed.

The ministry, headquartered in Northbrook, Ill., started in 2008 after Hurricane Katrina when founder Tim Hetzner brought dogs to New Orleans.  Soon after returning, Tim responded to a shooting on a college campus in Illinois and then Sandy Hook. 

Ken said the Newtown tragedy brought national attention to the comfort dog ministry.

There are more than 130 dogs in the U.S. program. More are being trained to meet increasing demand.  The dogs are trained in Northbrook, at a facility that offers simulated environments they may encounter and acclimates them to aircraft noise for air travel.

Ken said dogs and handlers work long days in response to a tragedy, but the dogs are given breaks, usually after two to four hours.  Handlers play with the dog and give it toys as a reward.
After play and reward, the handler gives the command, “We’re dressing,” to let the dog know it is returning to work.  The dog becomes docile, the handler puts the dog’s vest on, and they are ready to go back.  The next command is “with me,” and dog and handler are once again a team.

“Those dogs are trained not to bark, bite or lick,” he said. 

Ken won an Emmy for a children’s category video he wrote and produced with his brother called, “Wags ‘n Tales.” It tells of the comfort dogs in Newtown. He made it to interest both children and adults.

For information, call 866-455-6466 or visit Link to the "Wags N Tales" video about Maggie and other Comfort Dogs.

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