Mass shootings

Dogs provide comfort to grieving community

Ms Melissa Soto with comfort dog Susie near a memorial site for the victims of the Orlando mass shootings at the Dr Phillips Centre for the Performing Arts in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday.
Ms Melissa Soto with comfort dog Susie near a memorial site for the victims of the Orlando mass shootings at the Dr Phillips Centre for the Performing Arts in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

ORLANDO (Florida) • When mourners filed in for a prayer vigil in Orlando this week, they hit a friendly roadblock - a team of golden retrievers sent to help soothe a community in shock with their calm, reassuring presence.

As people knelt down to pet and nuzzle the gentle creatures, burying their hands in their soft yellow coat, many breathed more easily, taking a moment to forget the horror gripping their city.

In the wake of the Pulse club massacre that left 49 dead and 53 injured, a pack of therapy dogs was flown in from Illinois to the Florida city to offer comfort to traumatised victims and their families.

On Wednesday night, the dozen golden retrievers were stationed outside Trinity Downtown church.

Shelby Gerber, a bubbly young girl who attended the vigil and lives near the crime scene, said: "My anxiety level is pretty high right now."

"I didn't realise how really nice it was to sit after service and just pet them for an endless amount of time. It just alleviates the pressure off your chest."

For nearly a decade - ever since a February 2008 shooting stunned Northern Illinois University - so-called "comfort dogs" have become a familiar sight in the aftermath of major tragedies throughout the United States.

The dogs from Illinois have become famous on social media for the therapy they provide - Phoebe, for one, has her own Twitter account.

In Orlando, the dogs, accompanied by 20 volunteer handlers, also visited three hospitals treating patients wounded in the Pulse attack.

In addition, they have helped to console emergency caregivers, pa- ramedics and doctors, as well as families of victims and Pulse staff members.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Dogs provide comfort to grieving community'. Print Edition | Subscribe