Did you pet a dog today?

The horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, that took the lives of twenty children and six educators, has families hugging one another a little tighter, and pundits and politicians talking (again) about guns, mental health issues, and media violence.  In the midst of all the news coverage, however, was a story you may have missed, about a special group of dogs and their visit to Newtown.

Lutheran Church Charities photo

Lutheran Church Charities photo

Barnabas, Chewie, Chloe, Hannah, Luther, Prince, Ruthie and Shami – all golden retrievers from the Chicago area – are comfort dogs with Lutheran Church Charities. The day after Adam Lanza’s rampage through Sandy Hook Elementary School, the dogs traveled to Newtown to do what they’ve been trained to do: comfort the bereaved and grief-stricken.  They do their job well.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Lutheran Church Charities launched its comfort dog initiative in 2008, after a gunman killed five students on the campus of Northern Illinois University.  Just this past October, the group’s dogs were not far from my New Jersey home, comforting those whose homes and lives were devastated by Superstorm Sandy.

After my dad passed away a few weeks ago, I found myself sitting with Galen and petting her.  The activity had a meditative quality to it, at once both relaxing and rejuvenating. Usually I walk by Galen and simply give her fur a quick brush of my hand – I’m busy with kids, job, running a household; at night, though, I usually do take a few seconds to pet her as a means of winding down my day.

I’m not surprised about the increasing use of dogs to console people in times of tragedy or simply times of stress.  After all, therapy dogs have long brought comfort to people in nursing homes and hospitals.  Just last week, the owner of the daycare center I take Galen to suggested I train her to be a therapy dog.  “Galen has just the right temperament,” she said.  (I’m adding Galen’s training to my ever-growing To Do List.)

Recently there has been a spate of news stories about universities from coast to coast bringing dogs on campus to help students deal with the anxiety that can accompany final exams.  The Huffington Post even reports that Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School have resident therapy dogs in their libraries that can be “borrowed through the card catalog just like a book.”

There’s science to back up why petting Galen lifted my spirits, and why Lutheran Church Charities has seen its comfort dog initiative grow to sixty dogs in six states to meet demand.  According to WebMD, it takes spending only 15 to 30 minutes with a dog to feel less anxious and less stressed.  That’s because in that short time with the dog, the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, goes down, and the level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being and happiness, goes up.

Perhaps a take-away here is that whenever we need a pick-me-up, be it because of a minor stress or a life-altering tragedy, man’s best friend can also be man’s best medicine.  I’m not naïve enough to think that in times of tragedy hugging a dog will turn everything right.  But thank goodness tragedies are rare; feeling stressed out is not.  So when you are stressed, you might ask yourself, “Did I pet a dog today?”  If you didn’t, add that to your To Do List.

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In our social media age, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Barnabas, Chewie, Chloe, Hannah, Luther, Prince, Ruthie, Shami and their fellow comfort dogs have their own Facebook page, Twitter account and email, so they can keep in touch with people they meet.  Each dog also carries an old-fashioned business card.  (Thanks to the Chicago Tribune for these fun facts.)

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