Aaron, a Napa-based golden retriever trained to provide comfort to people in need, deployed to Las Vegas Monday following news of the mass shooting that killed least 59 people and injured hundreds on Sunday.
His first stop was to a local hospital, meeting victims of the shooting as well as the families of those who had been shot, according to one of his handlers, Ken Arnold. Arnold, along with handlers Janet Peterson and Linda Melsheimer, were sent to Vegas with Aaron by St. John’s Lutheran Church in Napa.
The church was asked to send Aaron and his handlers because of their affiliation with Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Ministry. The ministry has sent 17 comfort dogs from around the U.S. to Las Vegas so far.
When Arnold, Napa Valley College police chief, was contacted to deploy to Las Vegas, he hadn’t heard the news of the shooting yet, he said. It was 5:30 a.m. when he woke up and saw the text asking if he could head to Las Vegas. He cleared his calendar, got permission from his boss and prepared to leave.
“I always keep a travel bag ready just in case I gotta go,” he said. Arnold has deployed with Aaron to other major events, including the Umpqua Community College shooting two years ago in Oregon in which 10 people died.
In the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in American history, Aaron and his handlers visited hospitals, schools, community groups, counseling centers and individuals.
One person Aaron encountered who was once able-bodied will probably never be able to walk again, Arnold said. Another had to be taken off life support, he said.
The first night, he said, even the hotel clerk broke down and started hugging Aaron, Arnold said. The woman had been working the night of the shooting, he said.
“At the moment, she needed Aaron,” he said.
When the team took a break to eat lunch on Wednesday, people in the restaurant they ate kept coming up to them, telling them what happened during the shooting and “loving” on all the dogs, Arnold said.
“We’re not counselors,” Arnold said. “We’re giving them an outlet right now. That’s all we do – we just listen.”
“You’re grateful that you can be the goodness against such an evil act,” Arnold said Wednesday. “At the same time … you can only take so much of it yourself.”
When their four-day trip is over, the handlers will debrief about the event and talk about their feelings and what they experienced while in Las Vegas, said Christy Kramer of St. John’s Lutheran Church.
“The dogs as well as the handlers absorb a lot of the stressors and anxieties that they’re facing when they’re there,” Kramer said. It’s difficult, she said, but it’s a “blessing” to be able to do.
Editor's Note: This story has been modified from its original version to reflect the correct location of Umpqua Community College.