When it comes to healing, Newtown’s therapy
dogs have no age limits for coaxing a smile and easing pain
Photography by Zak DePiero and William Gordon
By Ranny Green
“I looked into their eyes and they recognized my pain,” said a teary-eyed Reed Intermediate School sixth-grader describing the grief-counseling role played by therapy dogs after the Dec. 14 shooting massacre that took 26 lives at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School in idyllic Newtown, Conn.
The dogs served multiple roles and opened the eyes of many professionals with their healing capabilities at Reed, where a community crisis center was established the following day and remained operative for six months. They also assisted in other Newtown schools for varying lengths of time, including Sandy Hook Elementary, which moved to a vacant middle school in nearby Monroe Jan. 3.
“There were many days I didn’t feel like talking to anyone,” confessed another Reed sixth-grade student on the final day of the school year in late June, “I just needed something to hug. The dogs gave me that.”
Brad Cole, a Southbury, Conn., private investigator and his 3-year-old Akita Spartacus were first in and last out at Reed and probably the most identifiable team there.
Steve Berko, a Sandy Hook builder-developer, who along with his 5-year-old Rottweiler Dascha, said, “In the eyes of those kids, Spartacus was the King or God and Dascha was a rock star. Everyone seemed to identify with Spartacus, possibly because he was always there when needed.”
On the final day of school, the affable Cole and Spartacus positioned themselves on the street corner as the Reed school busses full of students passed, heading home for summer vacation. Students waved and screamed Spartacus’ name through open windows with heart-felt thanks for being there in their time of need. “That was one of the most meaningful memories I’ll carry from the last six months,” said an emotional Cole.
Cole and Spartacus also volunteer weekly at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Connecticut’s only Level 1 adult and pediatric trauma center, where they visit with patients, family and staff. At Reed, the pair worked with the Crisis Intervention Team assembling from Family & Children’s Aid of Connecticut along with several dog teams the days immediately following the shootings.
Families often came to the crisis center as a group, Cole recalled, “but only one or two of would meet with the counselor. A dog team would sit with the family members who were waiting. . . . Many families returned for follow-up visits and requested the same dog sit with them in session. This was invaluable because the initial counselor might not be available and the dog teams were able to bridge that divide, sharing details with the follow-up counselor.”
Confidence and trust were quickly established with the teams, Cole continued, with breakthroughs and touching common.
“One of the survivors in Miss Soto’s (a teacher who died in the shooting rampage) class was not speaking with any of the adults. The boy was sitting with a dog while drawing and coloring. He talked to the dog and told him about what happened that day.”
Another child, Cole recalled, had a panic attack upon hearing the school’s public-address system. The girl apparently thought there was another shooter in this building and that the school was going into lock-down. She was sitting alongside a dog and noticed it was not concerned. “Then she gave the dog a big hug and was able to calm down and unexpectedly opened up about the morning of the shooting,” Cole described.
Both Sarah Jones (a pseudonym) and her daughter, Elise, a Sandy Hook fourth-grader who live on the same street as the killer, bonded with Cole and Spartacus several days after the shootings.
“We were still just numb and walking around in a blur, overwhelmed,” recalled Jones. Cole handed Elise puppy photos of Spartacus, establishing a safe, engaging connection. “Despite the best efforts of the counselor, who was trying to ask Elise questions about her feelings, Spartacus had 100 percent of Elise’s attention. Elise was not opening up with her words,” recalled Jones.
Elise mentioned that maybe her friend “T,” with whom she hid together during the shootings, could come meet Spartacus, too.
Several days later Elise’s love affair with Spartacus became even more pronounced when the family returned for counseling. At one point, Spartacus needed to get up and leave. The counselor reported back that once the dog left, Elise clammed up.
“In a counseling environment there is an unspoken pressure to talk, but kids can be really intimidated by that. In this instance of such shock, utter disbelief and horror, there were no words,” explained Jones. “Many days there still are no words. That is the beauty of Spartacus. He is patient, loving, safe and is just there without any expectations.”
Students and families were not the only ones in need of a smooch or a brief moment of embrace in the immediate aftermath. Bleary-eyed and exhausted law-enforcement officers and firemen, who had been exposed to the grisly site for hours required periodic breaks at the Sandy Hook Fire Department station a few hundred feet away from the school.
That’s where Bill and Laura Gordon and their St. Bernards Clarence and Rosie answered the call, albeit narrowly. The couple, members of the Greenfield, Mass., police department, was summoned to Newtown by a priest for the Boston office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
As an aside from their law-enforcement roles, they operate an organization called Canines Helping Autism and PTSD Survivors, making them the perfect first responders.
Upon arriving at the fire station after a two-hour drive, the Gordons were told that since there were no family members at the station therapy dogs were not needed.
“We explained that we were not there specifically for the families, but for first responders, too,” Bill Gordon said. “As we tried to explain why we were there, security personnel said, ‘Sorry, you’re not needed.’ When we turned to leave we noticed several firefighters in full gear on their knees, crying silent tears while hugging our dogs. I asked the security staff if they were sure we weren’t needed.
“Several minutes later, state police came running out into the parking lot and ushered us past security and provided us a full-access pass to the station where responders lined up to have their turn with the dogs. Some had smiles, some had tears, but all of them brought home a little drool. “
Gordon recalls a second powerful incident involving the 160-pound Clarence and 145-pound Rosie that compete one to two weekends a month in conformation events about New England. Rosie is a grand champion while Clarence has only recently started his show career.
“While we were in the fire-station parking lot a vehicle pulled up with a young woman and a child inside. The woman came out and explained to security personnel that her young son wouldn’t go to bed without knowing his firefighter daddy was OK. The firefighter came out, hugged his son and brought him over to meet the dogs. He told his son that the dogs were there to help him and that he could go to bed knowing that daddy would be OK. The boy hugged Clarence and jumped back in the car with his mother and headed home. “
Not as dramatic but equally compelling, at the command post an ATF agent was typing his report with one hand and rubbing Clarence’s head with the other. Clarence was giving him enough strength and psychological salve to write details of the investigation.
First responders, Gordon continued, aren’t accustomed to being cared for themselves. “What some of them saw will affect them for a lifetime. Taking a few minutes to decompress and pet Rosie and Clarence was a signature moment for all of us. I saw a relief on the faces of police officers and firefighters who just took five minutes out of their important work. The healing that a dog can provide in five minutes during or following a critical incident is just as important as the long-term healing it can offer.”
“I made a pact with the ATF priest,” Gordon smiled, “that he would bring God and I would bring the Saints to Sandy Hook. I think we both held up our end.”
In June, Rosie and Clarence were added to the Greenfield Police Dept. K9 First Responder Program that provides care and comfort for those in need, ranging from scenarios like Sandy Hook to simply providing comfort to a child who is a victim of a crime and is being interviewed by the police or other government officials.
Grieving has no timetable, which has been highly apparent throughout the Newtown/Sandy Hook recovery process. And it can be an eye-opener, too.
Witness Dr. Irvin Jennings, executive and medical director of the Danbury, Conn.,-based nonprofit Family & Children’s Aid, which operated the family counseling center at Reed. “I am proof positive that you can teach an old dog new tricks,” he laughed. “I have never owned a dog nor used one in my practice but after seeing the incredible assistance they rendered to us, I would not hesitate to use one at any time.”
He estimated about 300 persons visited Reed seeking help the weekend following the shootings. Several days later he recalled seeing about 15 dogs and their owner/handlers in the front hall ready to help when needed. At the outset, the center was open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. and eventually tapered to 5-8 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays following the holidays.
The original plan, according to Jennings, did not have therapy dogs. “When they appeared Dec. 15 I assumed someone had asked them to be there or had given them permission. I believe the dogs and their handlers simply showed up because they wanted to help and were drawn to Reed as word got out about its function as a place for counseling and healing.”
Jennings said the combination of three activities – dogs, talk therapy and arts and crafts – met the needs for most of those who sought help. “The therapy dogs were clearly the most popular element of the services we offered,” he emphasized.
Jay Smith, Reed principal, was a key figure in the success of therapy dogs there. His exposure to the positive interaction of them in school and home environments previously paid major dividends, as he played a complementary lead role to Jennings.
“It was not tough to sell school administrators on the value of having dogs there,” he said. “There is no manual for what happened at Newtown but I think we could help write one to let others know what works and what doesn’t in school situations like we faced.”
When school reopened several days after the shootings, 14 dog teams were stationed at Reed. “I saw them every day – in the class rooms, in the hallway, outside the cafeteria – and made a point of letting them know this is your home and you are part of our family,” Smith said. By the school year’s end, six teams remained.
Initially the dogs were positioned in the hallways of the four classroom wings until a teacher would request a team enter the classroom. It would remain there as long as needed. “It wasn’t unusual to see students crying and scared in the days afterward,” Smith recalled. “They were in school but mentally some were closed down.”
Smith will never forget a couple compelling incidents. One involved an autistic student who did not speak or interact much. As the weeks passed, she became interested in the dogs and learned to say, “sit,” “stay” and “down.” She eventually began to give one of the dogs a hand signal for “down” and then added, “I love.”
Another involved a depressed student whose mother wanted him to get into counseling. She drove him to the school one evening but he would not get out of the car. It was raining heavily, but Brad and Spartacus went out to car and talked to him for almost 20 minutes before he decided to come inside. A day or two later, a secretary gave a high sign to a nearby dog handler to bring the dog over to the student. The two connected and the handler invited the youngster to walk the dog back to his classroom. “It was the highlight of his day,” Smith beamed. “He felt like a celebrity and his spirits were lifted.”
Students’ love affair with the dogs was reflected in a variety of ways. One classroom held a party for a dog and handler; a student took his allowance money to buy a present for a dog; another had a birthday cake fashioned in the shape of a dog, shot a photo of the cake and sent it to the handler.
Not every teacher was a proponent of dogs in the classroom, fearing they could be disruptive, but Smith said, “The dogs became like motherhood, apple pie and the American flag. It was extremely uncool and imprudent to voice open disagreement or dissatisfaction with them at Reed.”
As the school year progressed, dog trading cards became coveted items. Swapping in the hallways was a common sight, with some cards much tougher to get than others. And by year’s end, students surrounded the handlers, asking them to sign their yearbooks, signifying again they were an integral part of the Reed family.
Berko, owner-handler of Dascha, the 81-pound, black-and-mahogany-coated Rottweiler and a neighbor of Adam Lanza, the shooter, reflected on the dog’s role, “I’ve seen the worst of humanity but the best in a community coming together. I learned to be focused on my dog and the joy and comfort we could bring to those grieving.
“Seeing a child having a bad day and simply sitting with Dascha turning that moment back to a good day is something I’ll never forget. I learned that my dog has been put here for a reason. She let me push her beyond the normal limits of a therapy dog, never showing the stress she began to feel. Eventually it caught up with her, however.”
With time, Berko and Dascha have helped dozens of Reed students put sadness, confusion and even anger in their rear-view mirrors to varying degrees. “Today, each and every student at Reed is referred to as our kids,” he smiled.
For Lauren Friedman, of Milford, Conn., a Therapy Dogs International evaluator responsible for certifying that organization’s dogs, worked with Drago and Siena, a Spinone Italiano pair, in several schools for weeks.
“I basically followed their lead,” she explained. “The dogs would approach people and either receive attention or be ignored. There would be times when I might observe someone or several individuals who appeared upset or withdrawn. Then I would bring the dogs over and just give them an opportunity to do their magic.”
Kirsten Strobel, a Reed sixth-grade teacher, explained, “We always took our cue from the dog and its owner. Some handlers provided background information on breed, characteristics, etc. Others spoke casually about the dog’s daily life and interests. Some dogs enjoyed playing with the children. Others preferred to lie down and have the children gather around and pet them. Every visit was personalized and the teams never left the room without meeting students’ individual needs.”
Strobel believes that embracing therapy dogs is directly correlated to how equipped teachers feel in assisting students’ integration of what occurred.
The dogs became confidantes to the students, said Victoria Bosse, a crisis counselor. “Music was a form of therapy in our household when I was a child. Thus, it felt natural seeing the dogs open a clear channel of communication here for the troubled children.”
Bosse had been a member of the death-notification teams hours following the massacre and arrived at Reed the following morning on less than three hours of sleep. When approached by a large dog that acted like a teddy bear (Spartacus), “it’s hard not to lower your defenses and start to breathe again. It was a timely psychological jump start for me,” she smiled.
Dogs were only one piece of equipment in her toolbox. “I remember saying to one of my colleagues that with dogs, art supplies, stuffed animals and grief materials, it was like having a therapy wish list at my fingertips.”
Known as the “crazy dog lady,” Deidre Croce, a counselor at Newtown High School and vice president of a foster-based rescue group, added a different perspective: “Dogs’ minds are not clouded with the stressors of daily life; their primary focus always remains fixed on their human. Their state of mind is a mirror image of the person on the other end of the leash. So while a lot of the attention has been focused on the dogs, we would be remiss not to give credit to the compassionate individuals who accompanied them into the schools for months.”
Months have passed and for some the psychological scars of 12/14 are nearly healed. For others, the wounds are openly inflamed and will take much longer for closure. Virtually everyone, however, agrees that the best medicine in this tangled process has been the therapy dog.
On June 22 in a civic ceremony, the community thanked the many therapy-dog teams with a special program attended by several hundred spectators and a wide mix of speakers.
But sometimes youngsters can capture the heartwarming essence of recovery equally well. When asked to characterize what the dogs meant to them, here are some poignant comments from Reed students:
Maggie: “Therapy dogs are the highlight of many students’ lives. To take them away would bring back the suffocating reality of 12/14.”
Emmet: “The therapy dogs are just terrific because every time the dogs come into the room, smiles pop up faster than a cheetah on steroids.”
Anonymous: “My mother took me to school, which had been set up as a gathering place for our community, a place where we could go to mourn and to cry over our loss. As soon as we walked in, I sat down on a bench alone, sending out a signal that I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
“And then I saw his face. Spartacus was a giant of a dog, with big dark eyes that looked directly into mine, and seemed to read my heart. His big, bushy coat of all different shades of brown was calling to me. . . . He gave me a big kiss on the cheek, and then, I couldn’t help myself. I tucked my head in his fur and let out a sob. . . . I cried for what seemed many minutes, while he patiently absorbed my sadness. . . . That was the day I decided I would have the courage to return to school when it resumed.”
(Part 2 of this special Newtown/Sandy Hook therapy-dog feature will be posted Aug. 31 on this web site. The author, Ranny Green, was the only member of the national media given permission to enter Reed Intermediate School to interview staff and students along with parents of several Sandy Hook Elementary students. He was also provided access to interview other key individuals involved in therapy-dog use in Newtown schools after the Dec. 14 massacre.)