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Trained dogs converge on Lewiston, bringing comfort to those who need it after mass shooting

Before the OneLewiston Community Vigil, Gabriella Dunham, 10, left, pets Oliver, an English cream golden retriever therapy dog outside of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Before the OneLewiston Community Vigil, Gabriella Dunham, 10, left, pets Oliver, an English cream golden retriever therapy dog outside of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)

Gadget was on his first out-of-state mission to Maine. Tomo works in schools and colleges. Django typically visits nursing homes and hospice patients. And, Tarik, well, let's just say the kids love him for his distinctive ears.

These are just a few of the specially trained therapy and crisis response dogs who were called to help out at several events after the shootings in Lewiston last week. Their job is to provide comfort in a time of stress and grief.

When hundreds of people turned out for a community vigil at the Basilica in Lewiston Sunday night, they were joined by more than two-dozen dogs and their handlers, some from as far away as Ohio and Florida. Nancy Mittleman is with Crisis Response K9s, a national volunteer organization headquartered in New Jersey. Sadly, she says, mass shootings are part of her group's resume.

"We were in Nashville. We were in Uvalde. We were in Surfside, Florida. We were in Michigan State. We were at UVA. We were in Buffalo. Pretty much any mass casualty in the recent past, numerous teams have responded to," she says.

Jen Adams looks at Gadget the dog, who was providing therapy dog services at the OneLewiston Community Vigil in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Jen Adams looks at Gadget the dog, who was providing therapy dog services at the OneLewiston Community Vigil in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)

Mittleman, who is accompanied by Tarik, a six-year-old German shepherd, says the handlers in her organization are trained in critical incident stress management as well as psychological first aid and post traumatic stress. The dogs are also trained at a higher level than therapy dogs to respond to crisis situations.

"We always say that while we can't go back and erase the incident from happening, we are hopefully able to provide some support to the community in order to help them heal and move on," she says.

Just outside the main entrance to the Basilica, Katrina White's English cream golden retriever, Oliver, is getting some love from eight-year-old Roman and his ten-year-old sister, Gabriella. White, who works with Safe Voices in Lewiston, is part of another organization called K9 First Responders.

Georgia, a therapy dog, looks around at people outside of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, before the OneLewiston Community Vigil. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Georgia, a therapy dog, looks around at people outside of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, before the OneLewiston Community Vigil. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)

The kids' dad, Josh Dunham of Lewiston, says he has been worried about the effect of the shootings on both of them.

"The hardest part about it has been trying explain to the 10- and 8-year-old why and what would make somebody do this. They haven't asked very many questions. It's been more their actions — wanting to sleep in our room. I think they're scared of the situation," he says.

That's where the dogs come in. They break down barriers for expressing feelings.

"A dog doesn't judge you and no matter what your grief looks like the dog loves you no matter what," says Jen Adams.

Therapy dog Tomo, an American Akita, looks up at his handler, Kim Fontaine, outside of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, before the OneLewiston Community Vigil. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)
Raquel C. Zaldívar
/
New England News Collaborative
Therapy dog Tomo, an American Akita, looks up at his handler, Kim Fontaine, outside of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, before the OneLewiston Community Vigil. (Raquel C. Zaldívar/New England News Collaborative)

Adams and her dog, Gadget, are from Connecticut. Gadget is a Mi-ki, a tiny dog that weighs less than ten pounds and is bred for "calm companionship and an engaging personality." Adams and Gadget are also part of K9 First Responders, offering support to whoever wants it and connecting people with mental health clinicians, if needed.

"It's humbling. People are hurting and it's an honor to be able to support in some small way," she says.

All the handlers are volunteers whose professions include law enforcement, teachers and social workers. They've been showing up in Lewiston in different places all week, including the first hours after the shootings, with some of the creatures who know best how to absorb grief: dogs, really good dogs.