By Paula Schlueter Ross (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Rev. Kurt Onken, pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Marysville, Wash., wasn’t really sure about the value of the so-called “comfort dogs” prior to the Oct. 24 shooting at the local high school just down the road from his church.
But now he is, well, a believer.
The pastor has seen the usefulness of the specially trained golden retrievers with his own eyes, for five days after the shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School when Aaron, Luther and Shami, with their handlers, visited numerous sites in Marysville in an effort to help students — and the whole town, really — feel safe and happy again.
The memory of watching the three dogs “work” a special-education classroom, in particular, will always be with him, he says. Eight fourth- and fifth-grade students with varying emotional issues and learning disabilities — who had been at the high-school pool during the shooting and spent some six hours in “lockdown” there until police escorted them out, “still traumatized by the whole incident,” according to Onken — were treated to a special visit from the “furry counselors” at their school a few days later.
“As soon as the dogs entered the room, the faces on the kids — except one — lit up and they swarmed around them,” recalled Onken. “There were smiles, laughter, chatter and hugs,” and many of the children posed excitedly for cell-phone “selfies” with the dogs and each other.
“One little boy had hardly said a word since Friday,” the day of the shooting, “but around the dogs he couldn’t stop talking,” said the pastor. Another boy, who “never smiles,” nevertheless “managed to crack one whenever he got near a dog.”
Another youngster — one who “had not stopped shaking” since the tragedy — “was perfectly calm when the dogs were in the room,” according to Onken.
Even the student who didn’t smile when the dogs arrived “eventually came out of his shell and spent time with the dogs and his classmates,” he said.
In an adjacent room was one more student — a boy who’s related to some of the shooting victims. He “stayed by himself, unsure about coming into the room with the other kids and dogs,” related the pastor. So one of the handlers led his dog into the adjacent room, just the two of them.
“The dog laid on the ground, the child snuggled up and hugged him, and began to sob,” said Onken.
That heart-wrenching scene, he added, “was a poignant and joyful moment all at the same time, seeing these kids begin to process in their own way some of the emotions they were dealing with and perhaps begin their own healing journey.”
Now, “having seen the dogs in action,” Onken says he “will affirm them as God’s First Article gifts who offer affection and joy” and “will recommend their reception in all manner of situations and in times of trauma.
“And knowing that people in the community were able to hear that these merciful actions were done in the name of Christ, I pray that these special First Article gifts will lead people into hearing about God’s precious Second Article gift, the ultimate healing we receive through the sin-forgiving death and death-conquering resurrection of our Savior Jesus.”
Posted Nov. 21, 2014