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The Art of Performance: Comfort dogs rise to the occasion

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By Dr. Keith Wilson

Dogs can perform in amazing ways — dogs in show competition, dogs working as herders for livestock or dogs working military assignments.

And since the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., comfort dogs have been performing in a compassionate way.

All of us have been touched by the images of the children who were at the school the day the unspeakable took place. The healing from this terrible event will take many years, but the natural grief process can be improved by the way interventions are planned to help the victims of the tragedy recover.

The Newtown school system has implemented many facets of care to help the young children return to school and begin to lead as regular a life as possible. The school system has created a new school, brought in counselors for children and their families and provided many resources to help children feel more comfortable in this challenging environment.

One of the more innovative interventions used in Newtown is the invitation to Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort Dog program, headquartered in a suburb of Chicago. These are specially trained golden retrievers whose presence provides comfort for those in pain. These dogs are trained to use their natural calming skills in a grief environment. Golden retrievers tend to be very mellow dogs.

Usually the comfort dogs are used with one or two people who are in pain or grief. They help to deflect the intense pain by being a powerful calming presence.

Ten comfort dogs were sent with their trainers to Newtown to be a specific presence in the school environment. This horrendous situation needed a high level of performance by the comfort dogs. There were many young children who were afraid to go back to school because they did not feel safe in the school environment. They were not sure they would ever be safe in school. Many children believed something bad would happen again. For children that young, they likely had many fears they could not put into words.

The presence of the comfort dogs provided a sense of peace that went beyond the spoken and unspoken fears of the young children. For some of them it was the presence of a comfort dog that gave them the courage to go back to school. It was a special bond the dogs provided. The feel of fur communicated to children that it was OK for dogs and children to be safe at school. Occasionally one of the dogs would sense a child was having a very difficult time and would go directly to them as if to give them a special protective presence and comfort. This experience for children and dogs provided another step on the healing bridge to the future.

Extraordinary circumstances often call for extraordinary responses and performances. The tragedy of Sandy Hook was overwhelming. The presence of the comfort dogs was an amazing part of the healing process. This is a great example of high quality performance from unexpected places.

Dr. Wilson is a performance consultant in Hardin County and owner of The Wilson Center for Performance. He is performance anxiety consultant to the Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center. He can be reached at TheWilsonCenter7@aol.com.