'Comfort Dogs' Relieve Emotional Stress in Grieving Newtown
updated 12/18/2012 AT 06:15 PM EST
•originally published 12/18/2012 AT 04:00 PM EST
Five specially trained golden retrievers and eight handlers arrived on Saturday to comfort those touched by tragedy, Vida Johnston, director of operations for Lutheran Church Charities's K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs of Addison, Ill., tells PEOPLE.
Since then, they've been on the ground wherever the community needs them. Dogs such as Shami, of Darien, Ill., and Bamabas, of Portage, Ind., are comforting children and adults with cuddles and nuzzles after making the trek to Connecticut. Another dog, Prince, also came from Portage, and Chloe, whose Facebook page says she's "ready to go to work to give a lot of love bright and early," made her way from La Fox, Ill.
"A parent will say, 'Thank you so much, I saw my child smile – and they haven't smiled for days,' " Johnston says. "The kids are telling the dogs about their own pets, they're [helping] them laugh, they're helping some of that burden drop off a bit. And the dogs just lay there, saying the more the merrier."
With Christmas just days away, the comfort dogs – pups trained not to bark and to be canine good citizens – are helping to relieve the pain in a way that only dogs can.
"At a high school school today the reaction was overwhelming," says Johnston, who hears the tales from her bevy of handlers. "Dogs have the amazing ability to zero in on the person in front of them that has the greatest need. They can have six or seven people sitting there and they go to the one who has the loss. The dogs know; it's amazing to watch."
The furry troupe has grown to nine dogs and they plan to stay in Newtown through Saturday, providing comfort and stress relief at schools and at vigils, or wherever else they're called.
And while the children have benefitted a lot from canine comfort, adults are also quietly yielding to their charms as well.
"We're finding the adults are holding it in," says Johnston, "and then they see the dogs and you see them visibly start to release that tension."
To learn more about the Lutheran Church Charities's K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs program, click here.