HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Since July Fourth, Comfort Dogs have been called to serve close to home — standing alongside mourners in Highland Park.

“There have been so many people who are hurting,” Handler Stephanie Keller said.  “They see these dogs and the tears start and with that, there’s a release – a comfort.”

Keller, and her Comfort Dog, Emma, met people in Highland Park’s Port Clinton Square – steps from where the parade shooting occurred. Highland Park native Andi Levanthal said she felt nervous about returning to that part of town until she saw the dogs.

“It almost felt a little more calm when we got over here and were petting the dogs. You almost forget where you are in relation to everything that happened,” Levanthal said.

The Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry has deployed specially trained golden retrievers to every major mass shooting since Sandy Hook. 

“This is a little harder in some ways because it is home. It’s our backyard,” Keller said.

About 12 miles from Highland Park, in a sanctuary of a former church in Northbrook, puppies are trained to become Comfort Dogs. There are now more than 100 dogs stationed at Lutheran churches in 27 states, and each one has passed through Lutheran Church Charities’ Northbrook training center.

“We start when they’re 8 weeks old with very basic things: learning their name, house training, and we slowly build on it,” Staff Trainer Becky Kolzow said.

The pups will receive at least 2,000 hours of training over the course of a couple years before they’re ready for deployment. The dogs are taught how to handle any situation —  and every person – with care as they grow.

“It fills my heart with joy to watch them do that and then to see them go out and help people,” Kolzow said.

When the special blue vest goes on, the dogs get to work easing the pain – even if just for a moment.

“It’s OK to mourn with people and it’s OK to share their grief — but we’re also here to share some joy too,” Keller said.