On December 14, 2012, I had two children in Newtown schools. My daughter, Charlotte, was one of the 20 children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary and my oldest son, Guy, was in 5th grade at Reed Intermediate School. Three weeks after the shooting, Guy returned to school on January 3rd, and was introduced to the therapy dogs that had already been visiting the school in the previous weeks. In the immediate days following the tragedy, dogs around the country were deployed to Sandy Hook and Newtown and were received openly and with gratitude by the community. The Newtown school district noticed the positive reaction to the dogs and deployed therapy dog teams to many of it’s schools. The intent was to comfort the students and the staff, but the dogs also added a layer of security that one may not anticipate or notice.
The security I speak of is not the type that protects one’s physical safety. I am speaking of the emotional security they can provide. For my son, returning to school was distressing. He felt exposed, vulnerable, and had exit plans for threatening scenarios. Throughout the next months he would spend a great deal of time with the therapy dogs. These dogs gave a great deal more than just love and comfort. The idea that the single job of a therapy dog is to make people “feel better” is a big misconception. No dog was going to make him ”feel better” after his sister just died, but what they did provide was an opportunity to allow my son to feel safe, understood, and loved. With them, he could be vulnerable and let his guard down. He did not have to pretend that he was OK. When in their presence, Guy felt safe enough to feel what he was feeling. The added bonus is that he also believed he was physically safer with a dog nearby and viewed them as protectors.
The impact therapy dogs had on my son was profound. Last September as we approached the third anniversary since Charlotte died at Sandy Hook, Guy became a published author at the age of 13. His book, The Dogs of Newtown, features many of therapy dogs that visited his school and gives tribute to their work. Therapy dogs did not fix Guy, nor cure him of grief for his sister. Nothing can fix something like this, but he has demonstrated how an individual can grow from profound adversity with the right support and love. I am incredibly proud of my son. His experience, along with Charlotte’s love for dogs, inspired my husband and I to create the program Charlotte’s Litter which advocates and supports therapy dogs in educational settings. It is our hope that schools will recognize that therapy dogs can help students feel emotionally safe and supported and aid to developing well rounded students.
– JoAnn Bacon
JoAnn Bacon is mother to Guy and Charlotte Bacon. JoAnn and her husband, Joel, founded the Charlotte’s Litter Therapy Dog Program in memory of their daughter Charlotte. The Bacon family advocates for the use of therapy dogs in education. For more information about their work and books please visit: www.charlotteslitter.