Therapy dogs were among those that comforted the people of Newtown, Conn., through their darkest days. Over the weekend, they all came together for a day of thanks.
More than 150 community members joined about 50 dogs and their owners and handlers on Saturday to thank them for the comfort they provided through the days and months following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
One of those dog-and-owner teams was Vic Neumann of Avon, Conn., and his dog Vikahn, a leonberger.
Neumann, 67, and Vikahn have been to Newtown to provide a furry shoulder to lean on every week since the shooting, visiting schools and a youth academy. They are volunteers for Therapy Dogs International, an organization made up of more than 24,000 members and even more dogs.
“I’ve only been doing this over a year now and it seemed amazing to me, the impact they can have. It’s indescribable,” Neumann told ABCNews.com. “They are the therapists at the end of the leash.”
He and Vikahn have grown close with the children they have spent time with and Neumann recalled one experience in particular that moved him. He and Vikhan were visiting a Newtown Youth Academy at the beginning of January, just weeks after the Dec. 14 shooting, when a little girl of about 11 or 12 years old barreled towards Vikahn.
“She burrowed her head and hair in the nape of his neck and hugged him. She said to him almost in a stage whisper, ‘I’m warm now,’” Neumann recalled, choking up.
He asked her if she was warming up from the cold winter temperatures outside and she answered, “‘Not that kind of warm. This is the first time I’ve felt warm since …’ and her voice trailed off. She looked at me and I knew what she meant.”
“He exudes the comfort, the warmth that a child like this has to have,” Neumann said.
Many of the therapy dog handlers carry business cards with photos of the dogs on them, Neumann said, and the children took to collecting them like baseball cards, trading their friends for their favorites.
He said Saturday’s event was a special moment of recognition for their work.
“It gives them joy and it gives us joy. For them to do this special recognition on Saturday was very heartwarming,” Neumann said. “We get paid with the love and the appreciation. That’s worth millions.”