Nine-year-old Mia Hochstetler collects signatures from her friends at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a small pink notebook.
On the last pages of the notebook, after stickers and felted butterflies, is a list of signatures from the therapy dogs [written by their handlers] who have been at her school every day since the Dec. 14 shootings in which 26 people, including 20 of Mia’s schoolmates, were killed.
Therapy dogs from across the country came to Newtown on Dec. 15; some stayed for a few hours, while others have been comforting the students right through the last day of school Friday.
On Saturday, Newtown community members gathered at the Fairfield Hills campus to honor the dogs and their owners, some of whom came from as far as Illinois. As many as 50 dogs and their handlers attended the event, and more than 150 residents turned out to thank them.
“My favorite dog is Bella because it’s my name, and she’s really soft, and I give her a lot of love so she likes me,” said Mia’s friend Isabella Battaglia, 9, who was at school during the shooting.
Isabella’s mother Carrie Battaglia said the dogs have also helped her other daughter, Jules, a Sandy Hook first-grader. Battaglia said Jules has struggled the most to deal with the tragedy, and the dogs helped her stop crying at school.
“She was upset every day at school. She had a hard time,” Battaglia said. “But the dogs helped her because she was happy to be with them. So for her it was pretty much every day, they would help her get back to a calm place.”
The dogs would be waiting for the students at recess, in the cafeteria, or in the library. The dogs’ handlers gave out business cards featuring photos of the dogs, and the cards became commodities in the classrooms, where they were collected and traded like baseball cards. Some kids have binders full of cards. Others made hand-written lists of every dog, its owner or handler, and its breed. Some students drew pictures of the dogs with rainbows over them.
“Recent research has said that when [people] pet a dog, oxytocin is released, which causes people to feel relaxed and happy,” said Cynthia Hinckley, executive director of Bright Spot Therapy Dogs of Massachusetts, which visited Newtown High School one afternoon in December.
“The high school students, being older, they had internalized this whole thing, so they really needed the dogs,” Hinckley said. “The guidance counselor said it was the first time they had seen the kids smile and relax.”
Brad Cole, who volunteers at Yale-New Haven Hospital, arrived in Newtown with his Akita, Spartacus, on the afternoon of Dec. 14, and the dog immediately started interacting with the kids. Cole said because of the success of the program in Newtown, legislation was recently passed to form a state-sanctioned, volunteer therapy dog response team in Connecticut.
“We have worked very hard to make other members of the legislature understand how important the work you have done truly is,” said Sen. Dante Barolomeo at Saturday’s event.
Greenfield, Mass., police Lt. William Gordon and his two Saint Bernards — Clarence and Rosie — spent a week with the police and fire officials who were first responders at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“A lot of departments give out teddy bears; we’ll bring the dogs,” said Gordon, whose department is starting a therapy dog unit. “Even if it’s one or two minutes, it gives you that ‘pull me away from the world for a minute,’ and then I have to go back to work.”
Saturday, on the Fairfield Hills lawn, a toddler rolled on Rosie’s stomach while she lay on her back. Gordon said his dogs were working with first responders in Massachusetts who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder when they were called to Newtown. He said many of the Newtown officers wrote their reports about the shootings with a pen in one hand, and the other stroking a dog.
“First responders aren’t used to being cared for themselves,” Gordon said. When he first arrived with his dogs on the Sunday after the shooting, “They didn’t let us come through security,” Gordon said. “They said ‘There are no children here, we don’t need you.’ We turned to leave and there were two firefighters hugging the dogs and crying, so I said ‘Are you sure you don’t need us?’ ”
Many parents who previously never wanted a dog have purchased puppies for their families after seeing the effects of the therapy dogs. Kim Calbo of Newtown and her 12-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, now own Cooper, a goldendoodle. They will train him to be a therapy dog, Calbo said.
“It’s puppyville around here. Everybody’s getting dogs,” Calbo said.
Including Sandy Hook Elementary School: Addie, a golden retriever from K-9 Comfort Dog in Illinois, was donated to the school, where she will stay indefinitely.