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
Orlando (AFP) - When mourners filed in to a prayer vigil in Orlando this week, they hit a friendly roadblock: a team of golden retrievers sent to help soothe a community in shock with their calm, reassuring presence.
As people knelt down to pet and nuzzle the gentle creatures, burying their hands in their soft yellow coat -- many breathed more easily, taking a moment to forget the horror gripping their city.
In the wake of the Pulse club massacre that left 49 dead and 53 injured, a pack of therapy dogs were flown from Illinois to the Florida city to offer comfort to traumatized victims and their families.
On Wednesday night the dozen golden retrievers were stationed outside Trinity Downtown church.
Shelby Gerber, a bubbly young girl who attended the vigil, lives right near the crime scene.
"My anxiety level is pretty high right now," she said. "Sometimes you are too overwhelmed to say anything."
"I didn't realize how much it really was nice to sit after service and just pet them for an endless amount of time. It just alleviates the pressure off your chest."
For nearly a decade -- ever since a February 2008 shooting stunned Northern Illinois University -- so-called "comfort dogs" have become a familiar sight in the aftermath of major tragedies throughout the United States.
The Illinois team have become famous on social media for the therapy they provide: Phoebe, for one, has her own Twitter account.
- 'Scared to leave house' -
In Orlando the dogs, accompanied by 20 volunteer handlers, were visiting three hospitals treating patients wounded in the Pulse attack.
As well as visiting survivors the dogs have consoled emergency caregivers, paramedics and doctors, as well as many families of victims and Pulse staff members.
"People will talk to us and ask if we can visit a family," said Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities, the group that sponsors the dogs' work.
"There's some individuals that lost somebody and they're just scared to go out of their house. So we're going to bring comfort dogs to them."
"Dogs show unconditional love," Hetzner said. "They don't take notes or keep track of wrongs."
The "comfort dogs" owned by the Lutheran Church are distinct from those managed by the Therapy Dogs International program, which brings together about 25,000 dogs volunteered by their owners to provide therapy without special training.
Hetzner's dogs belong to the parish and are subject to training with multiple handlers that sometimes lasts over a year.
He said the training includes teaching the golden retrievers -- a breed known as gentle and affectionate -- not to bite, lick or bark while providing therapy.
- 'Comfort rugs' -
Jennifer Blackwood, who also came to the Orlando vigil, was comforted to see her three daughters fussing over the dogs outside.
"There's a lot that has happened over the last week," she said. I have three kids so that's been a lot of discussion. Hard growing up talks."
Hetzner explains the dogs are taught to lie down like "comfort rugs."
It may seem trivial, but for the traumatized, the simple gesture of petting them can have surprising benefits.
"People feel more relaxed when they have a comfortable dog they can pet," he said. "They calm down, their heart rate goes down, actually, and they're more willing to talk."
Hetzner originally conceived of the idea after a mission to New Orleans in the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
As he worked on the search-and-rescue effort, he noticed the "tremendous bond" those his team rescued had with their pets.
"People would die rather than part with their pet."
The Lutheran church program funds itself with donations, and owns about 120 Golden Retrievers in 23 states.
Three dogs from the organization still reside at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 young children and six staff in December 2012.