Twelve golden retrievers arrived in Florida Monday, bringing hope, comfort and big floppy ears accustomed to hearing heartache.
The Lutheran Church Charities Comfort Dogs, with 20 humans in tow, came to Orlando to offer furry shoulders to cry on for those affected by this weekend’s gruesome nightclub massacre that left 49 people dead and 53 others wounded.
Gunman Omar Mateen, 29, described as unstable and violent, was killed in a shootout with police at Pulse, a popular gay nightclub featuring dancing and live entertainment.
The dogs are familiar with such terrible tragedies. They traveled to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, after Adam Lanza shot 20 children and six adult staff members to death in 2012.
They were in Boston in 2013 when the Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan, set off pressure cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three civilians and injuring nearly 300 people. Two police officers were also killed.
Seeing the dogs, petting them, or simply just wrapping one’s arms around the gentle creatures “brings calmness to people,” Lutheran Church Charities President Tim Hetzener told InsideEdition.com Monday evening. “It allows them to smile for a little bit and to talk.”
And the dogs, he added, are “confidential, they don’t take notes and they listen well.”
The canine unit was invited to the area by Trinity Luthern Church in Orlando. “We only go where we’re invited,” Hetzener said. After landing Monday, the group went to counseling centers, gathering places and an evening vigil that drew hundreds, as did similar wakes held around the country.
People reacted with outpourings of gratitude, he said. “A lot of the time the dogs just get down on the ground and people get down there with them,” he said.
“The reality of what happened hit a lot of people today,” Hetzener said. “It’s very emotional ... But we're a Christian charity. This is what we do."
The dogs will remain in Orlando this week, visiting survivors in hospitals, first responders and employees of the club, he said. "This has been very hard for them."