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Therapy dogs comfort Las Vegas survivors: 'I had help when I felt helpless'

by Ethan Sacks /

For many scarred by seeing the carnage inflicted in the Las Vegas mass shooting, a little comfort came courtesy of man's best friend.

Nineteen trained golden retrievers from across the country padded their way to Las Vegas this week courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities to provide comfort for those affected by the attack, which left 59 dead, more than 500 wounded, and thousands of families and friends emotionally devastated.

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But even those who survived the carnage at the Route 91 Harvest festival without physical wounds desperately needed that nuzzle — like Sunrise Hospital director of guest services Tracy Szymanski, who is still persevering through her job despite having been in the crowd Sunday night.

"I came straight to the hospital from the venue at 10:30 at night, still wearing my concert clothes, because I knew there were things I could do to help the families," Szymanski told TODAY. "It was a sigh of relief when the first dogs arrived Monday morning, because I knew the cavalry had arrived.

"I felt I had help at a time when I felt helpless."

 The LCC dogs have visited the sites of recent tragedies and disasters, including hurricane-hit Texas and Florida. LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs'/Facebook

The comfort dogs, along with their 30 human handlers, are part of the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs unit — veterans used to having their "paws on the ground" after disasters, natural or otherwise.

The unit's canine caregivers brought survivors some solace after the Sandy Hook shootings, and more recently, provided comfort to parts of Texas and Florida hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

And even amidst all the horror of the Las Vegas shooting, it's amazing to see how quickly these four-legged pros can spread smiles, LCC president Tim Hetzner told TODAY.

 "Dogs are non-judgmental, they don't take notes and are comfortable to talk to," LCC president Tim Hetzner told TODAY. LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs'/Facebook

"Dogs are non-judgmental, they don't take notes and are comfortable to talk to," Hetzner, who oversaw the Las Vegas mission, said.

"A key part of healing in any crisis or disaster is to be able to talk about (the trauma), and people find it easier to do that with dogs."

Those dogs — including one, Lois, who is based in Las Vegas and a regular visitor at the Sunrise Hospital — have been busy. "Because of the magnitude of this event, just about everybody who lives in Las Vegas has been affected," said Hetzner.

Besides working with survivors and grieving families, the comfort dogs visited a high school where several students were injured in the shooting, hotel workers helping victims' families, and traumatized first responders.

They have also visited the coroner's office, both to support victims' loved ones and staffers wading in such overwhelming grief.

It's extremely emotional work for the dogs.

  LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs'/Facebook

"The dogs have an ability to tell when someone is suffering, so after working with them for a few hours, we take their service vest off, pull a ball out let them run around and be dogs for an hour," said Hetzner. "These are golden retrievers, they like to retrieve. That’s how they work off their stress."

The current team is being flown out Friday to be replaced by a new, rested crop that will stay through the beginning of next week.

"They come up to you and get dog hair all over you, and then just nuzzle up to you and put a smile on your face," said Szymanski. "Every morning, as the person who supervises their visits at the hospital, I get to get my first dose."

"It helps me process everything."

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