Dogs Give Therapeutic Cuddles to Marysville After Shooting

Dogs also comforted people after Boston Marathon bombing, Sandy Hook shooting.

ByABC News
October 28, 2014, 1:12 PM

— -- A Washington state town is still reeling from a high school shooting last week, but three furry counselors have arrived to help.

Three golden retrievers from Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dogs traveled from their native Chicago to Marysville, Washington, on Monday. Two of them, Luther, 3, and Shami, 6, also traveled to Newtown, Connecticut, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and Boston after the marathon bombing in 2013. The third, Erin, is 9 months old and still in training.

"We just let them pet the dog, hug the dog, lay on the dog many times," said Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities. "As they do that, many times they start talking to the dog."

On Friday, high school freshman Jaylen Fryberg, 15, used a .40-caliber gun to shoot five students in his school cafeteria before turning the gun on himself. Two of them have died.

Residents hugged the golden retrievers at a church gathering Monday night.

Marysville-Pilchuck High School is closed this week because of the shooting, Hetzner said, but he and his colleagues will take the comfort dogs to places where students can be expected to hang out. On Monday night, the dogs arrived at Messiah Lutheran Church, about a mile from the high school, where residents got a chance to give them a hug and say hello. The dogs will spend a week in the town.

Pet therapy researcher Mary Jo Gilmer, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said dogs' unconditional willingness to be pet is a huge help for patients going through chemotherapy, grieving a sibling and more.

"A dog just cuddles up with them and doesn't say, 'You need to get on with your life,'" she said, adding that she's done research that shows children feel just as comforted by pets as they do by their friends when they lose a sibling.

"Just that unconditional willingness of the animal to be hugged {helps]," she said.

Studies have shown that being around dogs and therapy animals makes people produce oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone"; and dopamine, the hormone and neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of love (and also lust and addiction.) Dogs have also been shown to alleviate fear, anxiety and stress in part by decreasing cortisol, the "stress hormone."

Dr. Daniel Cruz of the ABC News Medical Unit contributed reporting.

Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dogs traveled to Marysville, Washington, to comfort residents after a high school shooting last week.