Comfort dogs descend on Highland Park — just like they've been doing since Newtown

Ruthie, a 10-year-old golden retriever, was just a year old when she was deployed to Newtown, Conn., following the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

She was 4 when she was deployed to Orlando following the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub; 5 when she was deployed to Las Vegas following the 2017 massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival; 6 when she was deployed to Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, following those 2018 school shootings; and 7 when she was deployed to El Paso, Texas, following the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart store.

This week she’s in Highland Park, Ill.

For nearly 10 years, the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 comfort dogs have been deployed to communities across the country reeling from mass shootings. So when one happened in their backyard this week, just miles from the organization’s Northbrook, Ill., headquarters, they were there too.

“We had dogs ready to go,” Bonnie Fear, LCC’s K-9 crisis response coordinator, told Yahoo News.

Parents and their children meet with LCC K-9 comfort dogs, all golden retrievers, at a park.
Parents and their children meet with LCC K-9 comfort dogs at Veterans Memorial Park in Highland Park, Ill., on Thursday. (Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities)

Within 24 hours of the July 4 parade massacre, 13 LCC K-9 comfort dogs — all golden retrievers — were in Highland Park and other nearby northern Chicago suburbs to help a community shocked by the killings.

The working animals are trained to interact with people of all ages and circumstances who are suffering.

“Whatever emotion people feel, the dog takes that on and they help,” Fear said. “We’ve seen tears and we’ve seen smiles.”

The dogs and their handlers have attended vigils and makeshift memorials, but only where they are invited. Fear said she expects them to be there through Monday.

“We just show up,” she said. “We just let them see and pet the dogs. We don’t do a lot of talking. We stand with them in their grief. People are very grateful that we’re here.”

A woman kneels down to pet Emma, one of LCC’s comfort dogs.
A woman kneels down to pet Emma, one of LCC’s comfort dogs, in Highland Park on Wednesday. (Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities)

They typically spend about a week in grieving communities like Highland Park, unless a second wave of comfort dogs is needed. LCC currently has 130 trained comfort dogs in 27 states ready to be deployed.

They were there after Newtown. And Orlando. And Las Vegas. And Sutherland Springs, Texas. And Parkland. And Santa Fe. And Thousand Oaks, Calif. And Dayton, Ohio. And El Paso. And Boulder, Colo.

In May, 13 golden retrievers from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Tennessee and Colorado were deployed to Uvalde, Texas, following the deadly mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

They were invited to the school memorial site, Uvalde Memorial Hospital and other places to provide comfort to children, parents and grandparents, families and first responders.

Four LCC comfort dogs lined up in a row in front of a 2013 Boston Marathon banner.
LCC comfort dogs in Boston following the 2013 marathon bombings. (Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities)

Some of the older dogs in LCC’s network, like Ruthie, have seen multiple deployments to communities impacted by mass shootings and other tragedies. Four months after Sandy Hook, Ruthie was among six dogs from LCC sent to Boston following the 2013 marathon bombings.

In Highland Park, Fear said she’s been hearing a familiar comment wherever the comfort dogs go.

“Everyone keeps saying how calm the dogs are,” she said. “We’re the calm in the chaos.”

Video by Sam Matthews

A child rests her head on one of LCC’s comfort dogs.
A child rests her head on one of LCC’s comfort dogs in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. (Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities)