On Monday morning, Brenda and Phil Burden were on their way to Orlando.
When they arrive in The City Beautiful, as Orlando is called, and begin the 12- to 14-hour shifts with their dog, it’ll be the second mass shooting they’ve worked in about eight months.
Last October, they traveled to Oregon — to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, where a gunman killed nine people.
The Burdens, members of Island Lutheran Church on Hilton Head Island, are “deploying” for the fourth time with a comfort dog. In addition to the shootings in Orlando and Roseburg, they’ve gone to Illinois twice — once following a car accident that killed a cheerleader going to a football game, and once after a plane crash killed an entire family except for a 7-year-old girl.
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But Orlando will be Sasha Comfort Dog’s — their 19-month-old pure-bred golden retriever’s — first “national deployment” with the Burdens.
The couple was south of Jacksonville, Fla., a little after 10 a.m. Monday. Sasha, an affiliate member of Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, rested on the backseat of the couple’s minivan. They know at some point they’ll go to the hospital to visit victims of Sunday’s shooting at Pulse nightclub that left 49 people dead and 53 more wounded. They know they’ll visit with the first responders who are dealing with the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
But as of Monday morning, they were still waiting to see what would happen and when. They’ll meet up with 10 other comfort dog teams from seven states and receive instructions from officials managing the crisis.
The reason dogs make such good comforters is that they’re nonjudgmental, and they demonstrate unconditional love. Their mere presence is calming and healing; that’s why they’re so effective.
Phil Burden, one of Sasha’s volunteer handlers
“The reason dogs make such good comforters is that they’re nonjudgmental, and they demonstrate unconditional love,” Phil Burden said during a phone call Monday morning. “Their mere presence is calming and healing; that’s why they’re so effective.”
Sasha, who’s been with the Burdens since early March, is a working dog with over 2,000 hours of training as a comfort animal. She wears a blue vest that sports the Lutheran Church Charities logo and her name. Embroidered on the vest is the phrase: “Please Pet Me.”
The Burdens have seen first-hand how a dog like Sasha can soothe people after a mass shooting.
In Roseburg, on the main quad at Umpqua Community College, Phil Burden stood in a circle with a half-dozen or so comfort dog teams after the shooting. Students came up and petted the dogs, he said. He was amazed by the “calm and peace” they received from the animals. Two students, who witnessed the shooting, he said, were particularly shaken. But the dogs walked them to class, even sat with them in the classroom.
“Some students would stay for an hour or two just reliving their experiences,” Brenda Burden said, remembering her time in Roseburg. “The mission of the dogs and the handlers is just to listen, just to be there.”
Sasha, who was named after a bomb-sniffing dog who died in Afghanistan in 2008, will work long days in Orlando, the Burdens said. She’ll get a break every hour and a half to play ball, “to just be a dog.” And she’ll get a daily massage to relieve the stress she takes on.
The Burdens take their stress to the Lord, they said. Their volunteer work is not about them or the dog — it’s about ministry.
“The dog is a bridge to offer the mercy and compassion of Jesus to the people we encounter,” Phil Burden said.
When Sasha’s back home in Beaufort County, she visits Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Naval Hospital Beaufort, and she makes the rounds at schools and nursing homes. She has a total of eight volunteer handlers. She works six days a week.
She obeys her commands, the Burdens said.
She’s gentle with everyone.
She’s a good listener.
She’s needed in Orlando.
Follow Sasha in Orlando
You can visit Sasha Comfort Dog’s Facebook page to learn more about her and follow her as she visits victims and first responders who were affected by the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando.