Solace-seeking mourners navigating the darkness shrouding California’s close-knit Monterey Park have discovered a source of comfort in the form of cuddly, four-legged friends.
In the wake of the Saturday mass shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio that claimed 11 lives, Lutheran Church Charities deployed five trained golden retrievers from its K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry – Lois, Rahab, Micah, Reuben and Salome – to offer compassion for a community torn apart.
The dogs traveled from Lutheran churches in Las Vegas as well as Elk Grove, Yuba City and Stockton, California.
Uvalde. Highland Park. Surfside. Newtown. Parkland. And now, Monterey Park. The LCC’s comfort dogs’ response to these tragedies and several others since 2008 have helped ease the burden of grief by simply being present.
“I like to say we’re the calm in people’s chaos,” Bonnie Fear, the LCC K-9 crisis response coordinator, told USA TODAY. “They just melt, their heart rates go down, and it’s a very peaceful witness that we see when that happens.”
The LCC’s K-9 Comfort Dogs and its Hearts of Mercy and Compassion, Crosses for Losses ministries planned a weeklong presence throughout the Monterey Park and Alhambra communities, according to Fear.
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‘The dog is there for them’
The special golden retrievers, each behavior trained at 8 months old and placed in Lutheran churches around age 2, are taught to engage with members of the public in crisis situations, Fear said.
“You have loud noises, big crowds, people maybe crying or hugging the dog – a lot of things that we are not prepared for that the dogs are,” said Fear.
The quiet dogs, which undergo 2,000 hours of intensive training, don’t bark as they’re being petted, according to Fear.
“People can release their emotions and what they’re feeling at that moment – it could be a smile, tears or total silence,” Fear said. “The dogs love on them, bring them comfort or whatever they need that day, the dog is there for them.”
The comfort dogs attended a vigil held Monday night in honor of the Monterey Park shooting victims. The LCC’s Hearts of Mercy and Compassion, Crosses for Losses Ministry left hearts and 40-inch-tall cross markers there as symbols of love and caring, according to the ministry.
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One woman sat with two of the comfort dogs and wouldn’t leave their sides, said James Casner, who serves as “top dog,” or the lead handler, for LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Reuben of First Lutheran in Yuba City, California.
“She just stayed there,” Casner described of the “solemn” scene.
A child, also reluctant to part ways with the comfort dogs, bonded so closely with one of them that she rested on the ground next to the canine.
“She must have laid on that cold concrete for 20 minutes cuddled up to the dog,” Casner said.
‘Stronger than just ourselves’
On Tuesday, the dogs met with Monterey Park’s first responders and visited mourners at another vigil held that night at Monterey Park City Hall.
Beyond crisis situations, the LCC’s K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry sends dogs to church events, hospitals, schools, nursing homes and community events.
The calm animals offer an accepting, judgment-free zone for anyone seeking a sense of comfort and security, Casner said. Research has shown that dog-human interactions and the health and psychological benefits are linked to the release of oxytocin.
“People accept them in their inner space a lot more readily than they will a person,” he said. “When people see a golden retriever, they just want to go over and hug them.”
Golden retrievers are a choice breed for comfort dogs as they’re receptive to behavior training, Fear said.
“They love people, they just want to please us, and using the 30-or-so commands handlers have, they become obedient to that in their training,” she said.
Like the comfort dogs, the animals’ handlers are there for support and strength during tough times. Fear says it’s her calling.
“Is it hard? Yes. But when we’re in it, it’s not because we’re all together,” Fear said. “I’ve met people I haven’t met before today that are now family, and that’s the beauty of humans – we bond together, and together we’re stronger than just ourselves.”