Team of comfort dogs greets students returning to school in Uvalde

According to CNN, many students returning to school in Uvalde, Texas, experienced anxiety on the first day of school on Tuesday. It was some students’ first time back in a classroom since a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School on May 24.

“I’m so scared and shocked after what happened at my old school, and I’m still scared and nervous,” Zeke Wyndham, whose fourth-grade classroom was down the hall from where the massacre occurred, told CNN. “I can still hear the gunshots,” he said.

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District enlisted the help of the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry to help students cope with the start of the school year. It’s a “human-care” ministry that celebrates the purebred golden retrievers’ unique, calming nature and skills.

The ministry placed ten dogs in the district’s eight schools. The dogs all had different roles at the schools, with some greeting students outside and others waiting in counselors’ offices for those in need.

“That will keep changing as the needs arise, as the kids get into their routine—and where the dogs are needed, the counselors will instruct us where to go,” Bonnie Fear, crisis response coordinator for the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry told CNN. “Our goal is to be present with those that are hurting and in need, and we show up and just be with them in whatever they’re feeling.”

The students’ interaction with the animals is intended to be stress-free so that they can express themselves in a way that makes them feel at ease.

According to KSAT, “We’re trained to be quiet. We don’t want to do a lot of talking. We want them to interact with the dog and to feel what the dog can help them through their emotions,” said Fear.

This is not the charity’s first visit to Uvalde. In the days following the shooting, it provided dogs to students at the schools. According to the ministry, the presence of the dogs made many students feel more comfortable returning to class after the horrific event.

There is a lot of research that shows therapy dogs can help people in difficult situations by reducing stress and providing a sense of connection. However, it is important to note that they are not the same as service dogs, which assist people with physical or mental health issues.

Therapy dogs are trained to interact with people in their surroundings, such as a school or hospital. According to research, therapy dogs increase attachment responses that activate oxytocin, the “trust hormone.” Therapy dogs have also been shown to reduce the release of cortisol, a stress hormone.

In a school setting, therapy dogs help children open up in therapy settings, facilitate discussions, and build rapport between people. According to Edutopia, therapy dogs also encourage students to attend school and help reduce tardiness.

This school year will undoubtedly be difficult for many Uvalde students. It’s wonderful that the school district and Lutheran Church Charities are doing everything they can to help these kids learn, grow, and feel safe at a time when the wounds from last summer are still raw.