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Comfort Dogs Helping Ease Town's Unbearable Burden

By AMANDA FALCONE, afalcone@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

7:08 PM EST, December 18, 2012

NEWTOWN —

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Maili Pieragostini, 6, opened a box of crayons Tuesday, selected one and drew a butterfly on a piece of folded paper.

The artwork was for her friend, Charlotte Bacon, 6, who was killed in Friday's mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As Maili worked on her card for Charlotte at a local tutoring center, she looked up as a line of police cars passed by, followed by a hearse.

Watching her daughter, Katja Pieragostini dabbed her eyes before regaining her composure and explained that her daughter's school — Head O'Meadow Elementary School — was closed Tuesday because of what police said was an anonymous threat. Pieragostini said she decided to bring her daughter to Excel Tutoring to spend time with "comfort dogs" provided by Lutheran Church Charities.

Pieragostini said she wants her daughter's life to get back to normal, including going back to school. But on Tuesday, the first day classes were to resume in Newtown, parents of Head O'Meadow students were notified an hour before classes were to start that the school would be closed. Pieragostini said she called police to verify the information, wondering if it was a hoax.

But it wasn't, and so police closed Head O'Meadow Tuesday "for precautionary reasons."

Although Pieragostini said she worries about additional threats, she also wants Maili to resume her normal routine, and that includes time spent at school, with her classmates.

"It's all about that," she said.

But with school canceled, the trip to Excel Tutoring on Church Hill Road to see the dogs proved a good distraction, Pieragostini said.

The golden retrievers — nine in all — arrived in Newtown on Saturday from Illinois at the request of Christ the King Lutheran Church and are making their way through town. Trained to be calm and social, the dogs are available to provide comfort and solace to those affected by Friday's tragedy, said Dona Martin, coordinator of the charities' K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.

The comfort dog ministry program began in 2008 following a shooting at Northern Illinois University, and Martin said the dogs have helped during several devastating situations since then. Most recently, some of the dogs were in New York and New Jersey to comfort people affected by Hurricane Sandy, she said.

The charity sent nine of its 50 dogs to Newtown. The need was so strong that the dogs and their handlers were divided into teams and sent to different areas of the shocked and grieving community.

"There's such a huge demand," Martin said.

On Tuesday, the dogs started their day at Newtown High School, where they were introduced during a school assembly, Martin said. The students gave the dogs green and white ribbons — the colors of Newtown — to wear in memory of the victims, Martin said.

Eventually, two of the dogs — Ruthie and Hannah — stopped at Excel Tutoring, a for-profit business that provides one-to-one academic tutoring.

Pauline Crisci-Gonclaves, Excel's executive director, said she thought it was important to take care of children's emotional well-being as they struggle to deal with the tragedy.

"They need to be happy," she said.

And it's not just children who benefit from contact with the dogs, Martin said. Parents need comfort, too, and people of all ages have stopped topetthe dogs, she said, as they visit the many memorials that have cropped up around town. The dogs have also attended vigils in honor of the victims.

Those who encounter the dogs "are very grateful," said Barb Granado, a volunteer at Lutheran Church Charities.

Martin said the dogs will remain in Newtown at least throughout this week.

"If we are needed, we'll come back," she said.

Fighting back her tears, Granado said, "It's going to take a long time for the community toheal."