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Where words fall short, dogs provide solace, comfort

CYNTHIA HINCKLEY
 Ernest Damon of Easthampton and Nancy LaFountaine-Blow of East Longmeadow,  and Westhampton resident Cynthia Hinckley travelled to Newtown, Conn., Wednesday this week with therapy dogs to provide comfort to the bereaved.

CYNTHIA HINCKLEY Ernest Damon of Easthampton and Nancy LaFountaine-Blow of East Longmeadow, and Westhampton resident Cynthia Hinckley travelled to Newtown, Conn., Wednesday this week with therapy dogs to provide comfort to the bereaved. Purchase photo reprints »

As the trio approached Newtown, Conn., on this week’s sunny Wednesday, they were taken by its rolling hills, stately trees and the quintessential New England small-town feel.

It looked just like any other town in the Pioneer Valley, said Cynthia Hinckley of Westhampton, except for the funerals with their tiny caskets. One after the other.

Hinckley, along with Ernest Damon of Easthampton and Nancy LaFountaine-Blow of East Longmeadow, travelled to Newtown this week with four therapy dogs. Their goal was to head to the town’s center and give anyone in need of comfort a chance to interact with the dogs, all of which are trained to be calm and affectionate in crowds.

But the Bright Spot Dog Therapy volunteers ended up visiting far more places than they had planned, meeting many of the townspeople still reeling from last Friday’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults. The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed himself as the police closed in on the school. His motives are still unclear.

Still reeling from the experience, Hinckley allowed a telephone interview with the Gazette Thursday.

“The horror of it hits you in the face and it’s heart-wrenching,” she said. “We can all relate to it, on a certain level, because, truly, it could have been our town or our school, but when you’re down there among the people living this tragedy.” Hinckley paused for a moment, choked up with tears.

And then she finished: “You just want to keep going, keep helping.”

The trio decided to go to Newtown after LaFountaine-Blow called Hinckley Wednesday morning asking if Hinckley thought it was appropriate for her to bring her therapy dog Gus, a Newfoundland, to the town. Hinckley said she, too, had been thinking of doing that. She called up Damon, a Bright Spot volunteer who has two Great Danes, Lilo and Tucker, and together they made the trip.

The first place they stopped was the town’s only Catholic church. The church was surrounded by uniformed police and firemen and hundreds of people in mourning.

“It was absolutely a sight to see,” said Hinckley. “I thought I wasn’t going to be able to breathe, I felt like my heart had stopped.”

An officer suggested the dogs mingle with people in the parking lot. As it was with each place they visited Wednesday, once the dogs arrived dressed in their Bright Spot vests, people immediately flocked to them, petting and hugging the animals.

“As soon as you made eye contact with a person walking across a parking lot to a funeral or coming up to Town Hall with memorial flowers and teddies — if you just looked at them and let them know they were invited, they came over and there were a few sad thanks and people were happy to touch the dogs,” Damon said. “This was the right thing to do, to spread a little cheer.”

Therapy dogs are not service dogs like seeing eye dogs, medical alert dogs or dogs for the deaf. Therapy dogs serve to provide comfort and opportunities to socialize.

In recent years, more and more pets are being brought into high-stress and healing settings, as the nurturing nature of animals is being found to have a soothing and even health-improving impact on some people. Pets, in general, have been found to reduce blood pressure and stress, according to some studies.

A National Institutes of Health study found that pet owners have less stress and are quicker to recover from stress when with their pets compared to when they were with a spouse or friend. And in a study of 421 adults, the NIH found that dog owners had a better one-year survival rate after a heart attack compared to those who did not own dogs.

Hinckley founded Bright Spot Therapy Dogs Inc. in Westhampton in 2004. The nonprofit has around 80 volunteers who bring pups to local hospitals, nursing homes, schools, community centers and wherever else they’re needed.

Other needs met

While at the funeral — one of nine funerals and wakes that took place in Newtown Wednesday — the dog therapy volunteers were advised their services could be a great benefit to the high school. At the school of 1,600 students, the dogs, with their certifications and medical registrations, were welcomed in. Though school was in session, it wasn’t a typical day. Classes were held, but if students didn’t feel up to being in class, they were invited to head down to the auditorium or gymnasium, where they could watch cartoons, work on an art project, talk with a guidance counselor or just relax, Hinckley said.

Students were eager to interact with the dogs, said Hinckley. She guessed that the dogs interacted with most students and many members of the faculty and staff.

She said the dogs preformed admirably, recalling her dog Lilly, a Newfoundland, approaching a grieving girl and just resting her head on her lap. A guidance counselor told Damon that he was relieved to see children that hadn’t spoken much or were withdrawn since the massacre experience a moment of solace while sitting on the floor playing with the dogs.

“It’s just a few moments of happiness these people are getting,” said Hinckley. “It relieves their tortured minds for a little while.”

As school wound down Wednesday, the volunteers made their way to the town center, and also to the middle school, and another funeral.

“It was surreal,” Damon said. “A combination of being in a nightmare and being at a movie set that couldn’t possibly be real.”

That night, Hinckley and Damon brought their exhausted dogs home. LaFountaine-Blow opted to get a room at a hotel and stay an extra day, Hinckley said.

But Hinckley and Damon both said they would be back in Newtown again, probably early next year. Hinckley said she’ll be in contact with the schools to return with an invitation to see the children again.

“There are so many people down there right now, people just want to give their support, but this will all end,” she said. “Those kids will go back to school and life is supposed to go on and a lot of this will have gone away. ... We want to come back and be of help with the dogs.”

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@gazettenet.com.

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