by Denise Marcella

There are moments etched in our hearts that we will never forget: the day JFK was assassinated; the morning when the Challenger exploded; 9/11.

For the people of Connecticut, December 14, 2012, has taken on the same tragic role: a day when the unthinkable happened. A school shooting so horrible as to defy imagination. What to do? How to help? What to think? All most of us could do was to watch TV – and pray.

Within days, responses were mobilized and appropriate help was being sought. As a therapy dog handler with Therapy Dogs International (TDI), my American Eskimo, Kodiak, and I were invited to assist at the Crisis Counseling Center set up in Newtown’s intermediate school.

Kodiak was to be a comfort; I was to hold the leash.

I could not drive through the town past the growing memorials, so we entered the school via the back roads.

The parking lot was filled with cars, and the snow was gently falling. Upon entering the building, the Director of TDI immediately took Kodiak from me and conducted a 15-minute evaluation to insure he was appropriate for the task ahead. Our assignment was to sit with members of the Counseling Team as they took their breaks.

If you have never been emotional in the presence of a dog, you cannot know the comfort and peace that he brings.

Some counselors petted Kodi; others held him close; most cried quietly into his white soft fur. With each person, Kodi leaned in with the full weight of his 22-pound frame and offered himself for whatever release was needed.

For several days we continued our visits, until the school once again opened to resume classes. The principal of the intermediate school, having witnessed the work of the therapy dogs, invited some of the teams to come and greet the students as they returned to school for the first time following the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Kodiak arrived early and took his place in the school’s lobby. Reluctance was on the face of every person who entered the front door – parents, students and staff – until they saw Kodiak. “Is that a therapy dog?” “Is he going to stay?” “Can I pet him?” “What’s his name?” “Can I take his picture?”

One little dog with a wagging tail and a friendly face managed in moments to dispel some of the fears and brighten most of the faces.

Denise Marcella and Kodiak
Kodiak and Denise

We entered a routine of weekly visits, along with other therapy dog teams chosen to be present.

Our day was Tuesday. The morning began in the front lobby greeting all who walked through the doors. Sometimes a few children stopped, but most times Kodiak was lost in a crowd of admirers all wanting a moment with their friend.

Soon a schedule evolved as students and staff began to absorb the therapy dogs into their daily routines.

Following morning announcements Kodiak traveled the corridors of the school. Many teachers had posters welcoming any and all dogs to enter their classrooms – which he did.

When students completed their math or science quizzes, they were allowed into the corridor for a “Kodiak” moment. A computer instructor assigned a project to have each student in his class research and design a webpage about one of the dogs who were in the school, so Kodiak always paid a visit to check on their progress. Students researching American Eskimo dogs shared their work with him. Students who were investigating other breeds apologized to Kodi for not picking him, but knew full well he understood.

At 9:00 am each Tuesday, Kodiak was a guest in a 5th grade English class, where he sat in the center of a circle of 10-year-olds while each read aloud from an assigned novel.

A stop-over at the nurse’s office was next to see if anyone needed his attention. “Kodiak time” became the reward for students in the special needs classroom. One morning a child incapable of communicating with people snuggled his body on the floor next to Kodi, and for 45 minutes, whispered his thoughts into Kodi’s ear.

To this day Kodiak has held his words in confidence.

Because so many children wanted photos of “their” dogs, we handlers had business cards printed and distributed.

They soon decorated lockers, went home to be featured on refrigerators, hung in classrooms and were well sought-after items. When Kodi attended a 6th grade English “coffee house” open to parents, virtually every adult recognized him because of his photo card. At the end of the school year, Kodiak’s color photo appeared on page four of the class yearbook.

As dog handlers, teachers, administrators, and staff, there was no plan regarding how one handles a situation such as Sandy Hook. No one ever imagines such a scenario nor makes plans in the event it should occur. The therapy dogs, however, needed no plan, no training, and no guidance. They did what they do best: offered a gentle face, a cuddly body, nonjudgmental acceptance, and unconditional love to each and every person.

During this season of celebration and peace, please find a quiet moment to offer a prayer for the children and families, the teachers and first responders, and all the people of Newtown, Connecticut — and the wonderful dogs who comfort them.