Condolences, prayers, blood donations and financial contributions have poured into Uvalde, Texas, in the days since the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. Therapy dogs have, too.
At least five organizations in and beyond Texas have deployed dogs to the city, where they comforted mourners at a Wednesday night vigil and are visiting hospitals, churches, schools and other locations. They offer support to the grief-stricken community in the form of wet noses, warm cuddles, wagging tails and listening ears.
Therapy dogs provide a valuable service to people responding to traumatic incidents, facilitating decompression and breaking down communication barriers, Crisis Response Canines President Andrea Hering told NPR over email.
"Dogs are nonjudgmental and they don't ask unwise questions," she added.
The teams are traveling from across the country
Crisis Response Canines is sending six teams of certified handlers and dogs — Tarik, Exon, Axel, Zodiac, Murphy and Macy — to Uvalde from New Jersey, Ohio and Florida.
The group's crisis response teams have provided support after more than a dozen mass shootings across the country, including those at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oxford High School in Michigan and, most recently, the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y.
Another group, Lutheran Church Charities, said on Facebook that its comfort dogs were invited to Uvalde by the school district and local faith leaders.
Their LCC Comfort Dog Ministry is deploying eight golden retrievers from various parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado this week, with more dogs to come.
"We know that comfort is needed to help this shocked and devastated community and the first responders who serve them," the ministry said.
Like Crisis Response Canines, their teams have responded to other mass killings across the country — including Oxford High School and the Waukesha, Wis., parade attack — and the group encourages supporters to donate to a fund for their travel expenses.
Other comfort dogs and handlers are coming from a little closer to home, like Therapy Animals of San Antonio and Canines 4 Christ, which is sending six teams including therapy dogs to Uvalde in partnership with the Salvation Army.
Chaplain Kris Blair coordinated a group of volunteers through Canines 4 Christ and other therapy dog organizations (she's also the therapy dog program coordinator at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, but stresses the center did not officially deploy any canine teams to Uvalde).
She told NPR that she wanted to "help people heal through our dogs."
"So many people put up walls when they have heavy emotions, and so just lending our dogs to them will sometimes break through those walls," she explained. "The humans can't necessarily get through, but the dogs will certainly start chipping away at that wall, and [are] able to distract them a little bit from all the chaos that's going on and let them focus on something happy."
Dogs and handlers go through lots of training
While the interactions between comfort dogs and humans are typically soothing and gentle, they require extensive training and preparation.
Hering explained that Crisis Response Canine dogs receive therapy dog certification as well as additional training "to handle unpredictable environments and the stress of deployments" — giving them what she called the elite title of Crisis Response Dog.
Their handlers undergo critical incident stress management training and psychological first aid courses so that they can "appropriately interact with individuals experiencing intense emotions after experiencing tragic events," she added.
Blair stressed that the dogs who respond to these crises have gone through testing and training, and are "not just your Fido at home." And she said their human handlers don't always realize how traumatic their visits can be.
While different teams have different personalities and comfort levels, she said, their handlers try to remind survivors that they're not alone and that even people who don't know them care about them.
Bonnie Fear, the LCC K-9 crisis response coordinator, told Good Morning America that the crisis response teams are met with a lot of shock, tears and distress in the days after a mass shooting, and that people are not yet ready to process or answer questions.
"We listen if they talk," she added. "We're silent. We let the dogs connect with people and they can express their feelings at that time and we're not counselors, so we are just present, standing with them in their sorrow."
Comfort dogs make a big impact in many communities
Blair said the Canines 4 Christ volunteers visited the scene of the Uvalde shooting, where they steered clear of crime scene tape but gave law enforcement officers a short break and chance to get some love from the dogs.
She said "there were some tears" when dogs comforted staff at a local hospital. They also went to the civic center to meet with families, including children who were inside the elementary school during the shooting.
Blair said she heard from a child who said something along the lines of, "It's a really good thing y'all brought all these dogs, because kids like me who were in the school, these dogs make us happy."
"That little kid has got some big trauma that he's going to have to work through, and his whole family's going to have to work through for a very long time," Blair said. "If we can play a part in any bit of the healing process, we're happy to do so."
Tim Hetzner, LCC's president and CEO, told GMA about a powerful experience he witnessed in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
He was at a community center with his dog, Howe, when a couple arrived with their young son.
"Howe looked up at the boy, got up, walked over to the boy, rolled into his legs and the boy came down on top of him. They just laid there," he recalled. "After about 10 minutes, the boy lifted up Howe's ear and told him everything that happened in that classroom. Parents started crying because it was the first time the boy had talked in four days. First time and it was a dog."
He said the group's K-9 unit has expanded from four dogs in 2008 to more than 130 dogs in 27 states, and has seen a marked increase in comfort dog requests in the last two years.
Notably, more than a dozen therapy dogs from different groups went back to school with students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after the 2018 mass shooting there.
They became a fixture on campus, so much so that their names and official portraits made it into the yearbook.