Dogs are a wonderful source of comfort after a tragedy — here's why

Funeral Therapy Dog Turns Sadness Into Smiles

On the Monday after the Orlando mass shooting, 12 specially trained golden retrievers arrived in Florida to do what they do best: provide comfort.

The dogs are part of the K-9 Comfort Dog Team, a program run by the Lutheran Church Charities that now has 130 dogs in 23 states across the country. The dogs — all golden retrievers — deploy as part of the organization's disaster response team.

Each dog was picked as a puppy because of its calm demeanor, and each one was trained to be gentle, comforting, and affectionate. They all do this without barking, jumping, or getting distracted by events and noises around them.

See the K-9 Comfort dog team in action:

K-9 Comfort Dog Team
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K-9 Comfort Dog Team
Celeste Corcoran, her daughter Sydney Corcoran and Dave Fortier (L-R) survivors of the Boston bombing, visit with Pulse nightclub survivor Angel Colon (2nd R) with service dogs Sebastian, Koda and Zealand, (L-R) at Orlando Regional Medical Center in Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 25, 2016. Orlando Health/Handout via Reuters 
Eliza Gedney, Sydney Corcoran, Dave Fortier and Celeste Corcoran (L-R), survivors of the Boston bombing, visit Pulse nightclub shooting survivors at the Orlando Regional Medical Center with service dogs, Koda, Zealand, and Sebastian (L-R) in Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 25, 2016. Orlando Health/Handout via Reuters 
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 15: A group of young women pet a therapy dog near a memorial for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, June 15, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The shooting at Pulse Nightclub, which killed 49 people and injured 53, is the worst mass shooting in American history. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 14: Melissa Soto cuddles with a therapy dog near a memorial for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, at the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts, June 14, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The shooting at Pulse Nightclub, which killed 49 people and injured 53, is the worst mass-shooting event in American history. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
In response to the shooting on the University of South Carolina campus, PAALS - Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services - brought their therapy dogs in training to campus on Feb. 6, 2016 in Columbia, S.C. Students were encouraged to stop by and pet and receive comfort from the loving animals. (Tracy Glantz/The State/TNS via Getty Images)
WATERTOWN, MA - APRIL 20: AJ Feltner Harrison, 13, who lives on nearby Parker Street in Watertown and witnessed the initial shots fired, pets two certified therapy dogs, Archie (left), and Diva (right), both 13 years old, at the scene where bombing suspect was caught last night on Franklin Street on April 20, 2013 in Watertown, Massachusetts. The therapy dogs are owned by Gretchen Grimshaw (not pictured), of Watertown, an Episcopal Priest who lives only a few blocks from the Franklin Street scene. A manhunt for Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing ended after he was apprehended on a boat parked on a residential property in Watertown, Massachusetts. His brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, the other suspect, was shot and killed after a car chase and shootout with police. The bombing, on April 15 at the finish line of the marathon, killed three people and wounded at least 170.(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
NEWTOWN, CT - DECEMBER 20: A child pets a therapy dog at a streetside memorial for massacre victims on December 20, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Six funeral services were held Thursday in the Newtown area for some of the 26 students and teachers slain in last Friday's attack. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Glen Hoffman (L) of Extra Mile Ministries with K9 crisis comfort dog Beau (front) listens to a community meeting at the Newtown High school on the future of Sandy Hook Elementary School the site of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history in Newtown, Connecticut January 13, 2013. K9 crisis comfort dog Dolly (rear) with her owner Laurie Buchele are also pictured. REUTERS/ Michelle McLoughlin 

In Orlando last week, the animals visited hospitals and churches, attended vigils and memorial services, and met with the staff of Pulse, the nightclub where the shooting occurred, The New York Times reports. These same dogs were in Boston after the marathon bombing and in Sandy Hook after the elementary school shooting. When there is no national crisis, the dogs work six days a week making the rounds at schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.

How the dogs help

Numerous studies have shown that dogs are special in their ability to affect human emotions, moods, and stress. Research even suggests that they have biological effects on us, elevating the levels of the hormone oxytocin, sometimes referred to as "the love hormone," which plays an important role in attachment forming and bonding.

"Dogs have an incredible bond with people," Dr. Brian Hare, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University and author of "The Genius of Dogs," told Business Insider. "Just by making eye contact with dogs, we have an increase in oxytocin. This makes dogs incredibly valuable for people under any kind of stress, or recovering from trauma."

Oxytocin has been shown to improve trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia, and other pro-social effects, Smithsonian reports.

Studies have also shown that petting dogs can help lower people's heart rates, as well as reduce stress and anxiety.

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not necessarily consider comfort dogs (or emotional-support dogs) to be service dogs. Still, psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors have used and continue to use dogs with patients because evidence shows canines can help reduce feelings of depression as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans and survivors of childhood abuse.

These dogs also help people open up and talk about their experiences, Tim Hetzner, president of the Lutheran Church Charities, told Business Insider.

"It is very important that people in a crisis or disaster situation talk about the situation and what they have gone through. That's part of the healing process," he said. "Dogs are safe, [so] they will talk to the dog rather than a person, since dogs are great listeners. They are confidential — they don't keep records of rights and wrongs. They are nonjudgmental. They are the perfect choice."

"People will hug the dogs. They will cry on the dogs," he said. "And what we have found is that sometimes when two or three people are with a dog, they will all just lay on the ground, petting the dog together ... and then they will start talking to one another, too."

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