"We try not to say anything, we let the dog be the bridge for those people to grieve the loss, whatever they're feeling," the organizers explained.
Teams of rescue workers from across the U.S. and around the world have been deployed to Surfside, Florida, over the past three weeks to help with the recovery at the site of last month's devastating condo collapse. Among them were nine golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry who visited first responders and mourners with empathetic eyes and furry paws to help them through these trying times. "They are highly trained working dogs that remain calm in any situation and they are here for people to pet," Bonnie Fear, the LCC K-9 crisis response coordinator, told USA Today.
The organization explained that the dogs were brought to the site of the collapsed Surfside Champlain Towers South condominium with the aim of helping first responders process their grief from a grueling search in which the death toll keeps rising. "We're very concerned about their mental health," Fear told NPR. The golden retrievers came from Florida, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and Tennessee and spent a week at the memorial wall near the site of the collapsed Surfside Champlain Towers South condominium. They also visited a family assistance center set up by the Red Cross and a local Publix grocery store during their time at Surfside.
Fear revealed that people at the memorial immediately noticed the dogs who were wearing blue vests that read "Please Pet Me." While some greeted the canines with tears in their eyes, others broke into huge smiles at the sight of the dogs. "They're just either shocked or pleased that we show up in a time of crisis just for the people that are hurting and affected by the crisis," she said. Fear explained that the group takes comfort dogs to disaster or crisis sites across the country when a local Lutheran church issues an invitation. Over 130 LCC K-9 comfort dogs trained to interact with people of all ages are currently serving in 27 states at hospitals, schools, nursing homes, hospice centers, rehab centers, and cancer centers.
They were in New York and New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and also in Texas after the shooting at the El Paso Walmart in 2019. "These dogs are here for you," Fear told WPLG Local 10. "A lot of times they come up, they'll fall to their knees, they'll start crying or they'll smile. We try not to say anything, we let the dog be the bridge for those people to grieve the loss, whatever they're feeling." Speaking to WTVJ, Tim Hetzner, president of LCC, said that the dogs are invaluable in times of sorrow.
"Many times people in traumatizing situations -- I can remember Sandy Hook some of the children didn't talk for days until they petted one of our comfort dogs and then told our dogs what happened because they were safe," said Hetzner. "We know that we are bringing some comfort and peace in the form of golden retrievers. We're going to be paws on the ground within 24 hours." In the case of Surfside, the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry received an invitation from Holy Cross Lutheran Church & School in North Miami and arrived within a day of the invitation.
At the memorial site, 19 volunteer handlers used behavioral commands to engage the goldens with the first responders they met with. The LCC has also been providing markers with the names of all those who died in the condo collapse. Once a victim is publicly identified, the group places the person's name on a blue heart attached to a white post and places it in alphabetical order along the sidewalk in front of the memorial wall. Mourners can leave messages for their dearly departed on the blue hearts. "In the end, this is a gift to the family," Fear said. "Hopefully it will end up in their hands. It's a gift from us… For the family, they are getting closure."