By Paula Escalada Medrano - EFE
They are not psychologists expert in trauma but with their mere presence they manage to calm tense environments and overcome sadness. They are the "comfort dogs" (comfort or therapy dogs), which in the United States have a specialization: mass shootings.
So far this year they have been, among other places, in Monterey Park, where a man killed 11 people in January at a dance studio, and in Allen, Texas, where another gunman killed eight people in a shopping mall three weeks ago.
A woman pets a therapy dog, on May 24, 2023, in the Plaza de Uvalde, Texas.Adam Davis / EFE
This week, a group of about 10 dogs, golden retrievers, went to Uvalde, in the state of Texas, where Wednesday commemorated one year of the attack on Robb Elementary School, in which 19 children and 2 teachers died.
Among the dead were two friends of Adalyn, 10, who on the day of the anniversary went with her parents and her little sister to the memorial that was installed in the central square of the municipality after the tragedy.
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Hugging her mother, she spent a while crying while looking at the crosses with photographs of the children, toys and flowers, which were left by dozens of citizens or relatives throughout the day.
But when Gideon appeared, with his scarf around his neck and a breastplate embroidered with the word "caress me" he began to touch it lying on the grass and the sadness disappeared from his face completely.
"Petting a dog brings them calm and helps them, for a moment, forget whatever they have in mind," explains Bonnie Fear, project coordinator for Lutheran Church Charities, a Lutheran organization based in Northbrook, Illinois.
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Uvalde is the third time they go. "We were here last year (when the shooting occurred) and September when the school year started to welcome the children," says Fear, who explains that they always come at the invitation of Lutheran churches in the area.
For the therapeutic properties of petting them (lower blood pressure and help relieve anxiety, according to numerous scientific studies), dogs are used in numerous therapies in many countries, but in the United States this use has a particularity: intervention in areas where mass shootings occur.
To do this, Fear explains, they are "highly trained" from puppies in order to be "trained to respond to a crisis." "Most of the training is for calm because in an environment like this, we want dogs to be calm and people just pet them and feel liberated."
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In total they have 130 dogs, all golden retrievers because "they look different, they are special". They belong to the religious organization but in their day to day they are cared for by families who live in 27 of the states in which this project has a presence.
In the interventions, each one is accompanied by a person who holds the leash and who also receives crisis training because he is the one who usually holds conversations with those who come to pet the dogs.
"We are trained to listen and talk to children and adults. We hear them when they want to vent, but many don't want to talk, they just want to pet the dog."
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When they talk, he adds, it's usually about "questions about the dog." We never try to ask how they are because it's obvious."
In the years that the project, created in 2008, has existed, they have gone through the bloodiest events that the country has experienced, including the Las Vegas shooting of 2017, in which 58 people died, the worst massacre in the United States since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Also in the second deadliest, the massacre of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which caused 50 victims in 2016. And in the shooting in El Paso in 2019, directed towards the Latino community in particular.
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When they do not dedicate themselves to attending these tragedies, Fear points out, they go to hospitals or schools, where their therapeutic benefits are also revealed.
"We have been in hospitals and we see that patients, when they start petting a dog, lower their heart rate and their blood pressure decreases," he says while observing another group of children playing with a dog, looking away for a moment from the crosses that recall the horror that the city experienced a year ago.