By Kevin Deutsch
A golden retriever who comforted victims’ families and survivors after the 2018 Parkland shooting is now helping grieving families in Surfside, a Florida nonprofit group said.
Laiza is among 10 therapy dogs brought in to cuddle, comfort, or sit with grieving families in the beachside town—people whose relatives and friends died or went missing in the June 24 building collapse.
The loving canine also worked with traumatized families and survivors after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, said Linda Perez, president of Boricuas De Corazon, the nonprofit group that uses emotional support dogs as part of year-round efforts to help disaster victims.
“They were able to help with anxiety, with emotional stress, with panic attacks,” Perez said of the canine team, which, in addition to Laiza, includes Tal, an Akbash, and Molly, a Walker Coonhound.
“This was an emotional situation for these families, where they don’t have any explanation for what happened,” said Perez. “The dogs give them comfort in a difficult time.”
The organization’s dogs have met with 93 families connected to the tragedy, as well as 38 first responders working the massive search and rescue mission, according to Perez.
Several dogs understand Spanish, allowing them to work closely with Spanish-speaking families, including some hailing from Argentina and Puerto Rico.
“We listen to their stories” as the dogs comfort them during personalized sessions, said Perez. “A lot of them were asking questions, like ‘where are my family members, why is this happening to us?’ It was very, very emotional.”
As of Tuesday, officials had confirmed at least 36 deaths in the Surfside disaster, as well as dozens of rescues following the initial collapse. At least 109 people remain unaccounted for, officials said.
Different therapy dogs have had different missions in Surfside, said Perez. Some went to a hotel where impacted families are staying, while others roamed the nearby beach, worked at the memorial site, or sat with traumatized survivors and first responders, joined by a 10-person handler team from the nonprofit.
The dogs’ experience in Surfside has been different from their deployment in Parkland. In the devastating days after the shooting, dogs worked with survivors and “reinforced the feeling that you are here, you are safe, and you can move forward,” said Perez.
“We had to work with mothers and fathers and siblings, who didn’t understand why their brother and sister were gone.”
In Surfside, the dogs are helping more first responders, who remain under immense pressure to find survivors and victims.
“They are working desperately, trying to find someone during 12…hour shifts,” said Perez. “It’s emotionally draining. A lot of them are suffering.”
Perez said she plans to bring Laiza back on return trips to Surfside for as long as the retriever is needed.
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- Kevin Deutsch is an award-winning crime journalist and author. A graduate of Florida International University, Kevin has worked on staff at The Miami Herald, New York Daily News, and The Palm Beach Post.