June 17, 2016

When WFTV’s Raquel Asa saw that a charity was bringing 12 golden retrievers to Orlando to comfort first responders and the community that’s still reeling from the mass shooting at a gay nightclub on Sunday, she knew it was a story.

But she didn’t know, at first, how much she or her coworkers needed that comfort, too.

After recording her story, Asa spoke with Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities, which started its K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry in 2008. The dogs have been with people in Boston after the Marathon bombing in 2013, in Newtown, Connecticut after the mass shooting in 2012 and at any other emergencies and disasters they’re invited to.

“I said, ‘it still gets you every time, doesn’t it?'” Asa said.

They both started crying.

“He said, ‘I think we need to have these dogs love on you. I think you need them, too.”

Asa got down onto the ground and found herself surrounded by 12 golden retrievers. She had a sudden sense of comfort, calm and relief that she hadn’t had for awhile. After the story aired, Asa heard from coworkers how much they enjoyed it. They joked that they should bring the dogs into the newsroom.

On Wednesday, she realized it shouldn’t be a joke. She asked her boss if they could invite the dogs in. On Thursday, they stopped by.

The hurt in Orlando is palpable right now, Asa said, “and it’s especially palpable in a newsroom, and I think people forget that.”

WFTV employees with the comfort dogs. (Photo by Nancy Alvarez, WFTV)

WFTV employees with the comfort dogs. (Photo by Nancy Alvarez, WFTV)

A total of 12 dogs came to Orlando on Monday. (Photo by Nancy Alvarez, WFTV)

A total of 12 dogs came to Orlando on Monday. (Photo by Nancy Alvarez, WFTV)

Photo by Kari Cobham/Cox Media Group

Photo by Kari Cobham/Cox Media Group

This isn’t the dogs’ first newsroom visit, Hetzner said. They go wherever first responders request them.

“We don’t just show up at a newsroom, but we make that offer to any of the news organizations that are working a crisis,” he said. “They feel what’s going on here, particularly when it’s a local station. They have to cover it, but they also have to live it.”

When he started the ministry, he had four dogs. Today, there are 120 dogs in 23 states that are trained at the level of a service dog. They work with all age groups and operate off of donations (which Hetzner said they will not take from places they’ve visited).

Journalists have difficult jobs, he said.

“Not a lot of people see the need to serve the media, or they somehow think the media is evil, and it’s not. So we always try to do that. It’s part of what we do as Christians,” he said. “We serve people who are under stress.”

At WFTV, it worked. It was just 30 or 40 minutes, but Asa saw smiles from people who hadn’t had anything to smile about for the last week. It’s like a detox, Hetzner said.

“They’re comfort rugs with a heartbeat,” he said. “So people can just get down on the ground and love on them.”

Think about it, he said. How many people do you know who embody all of these qualities at the same time: good listening skills, confidentiality, no record of wrongdoing, nonjudgemental?

Other newsrooms or journalists that need some canine comfort should contact him, Hetzner said. They’ll be in Orlando for a few more days.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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