Therapy dogs, owners comforting Las Vegas shooting victims

Therapy dogs made regular appearances in Las Vegas following the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1. Trainers and their dogs from all over the country comforted victims, families and first responders in their time of need.

Many of them have gone home, as victims have been discharged or transferred to other hospitals. But local therapy dog trainers like Jodi Notch and Tom Pilkington still have work to do.

Notch’s Carson, a 3-year-old golden retriever, and Pilkington’s Toby, a 4-year-old flat-coated retriever, have been visiting memorials, blood banks, hospitals and the Family Assistance Center at the Las Vegas Convention Center since the shooting.

Standing outside Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center two weeks after the shooting, Pilkington reflected on what he had seen and experienced alongside his dog.

“The first time here at the hospital was very, very hard,” he said. “… You come to the hospital and you see the wounds, and they’re this close to you. You see the devastation of the families. It’s brutal. It’s brutal.”

Notch, an assistant principal at Cozine Elementary School, has raised and trained therapy dogs for 12 years. She also runs a dog-training service, Top Notch K9, and is a certified evaluator for Therapy Dogs International.

She makes hospital visits with her dogs, and while every situation is sad, she’s gotten used to seeing people who are sick or injured.

“But … now I think people are more in search of comfort,” Notch said. “Families are more in search of comfort.”

The dogs are great, Notch said, because “they don’t know sorrow. They just know that somebody needs to love them.”

Pilkington recalled getting emotional as he watched a woman leave her hospital bed, grab Notch’s dog around the neck and start bawling.

“It was OK to do that,” Pilkington said. With the dog, “she didn’t have to have her guard up.”

A desire to help

Like thousands of others across the valley, when Notch and Pilkington found out about the shooting, they wanted to help. While others flooded blood banks in the early hours of Oct. 2, Notch and her sister Melanie Fisher went to Mandalay Bay.

“We would go up to the SWAT (team) and be like, ‘Do you want to pet (the dog)?’” Fisher said. “They wouldn’t go out of their way, obviously, but when you would go and just ask, they said yes.”

On a visit to Sunrise, Notch, Fisher and Pilkington met Rachel Sheppard.

Sheppard, 26, was shot three times in the chest and stomach Oct. 1. When the dog owners met her, Sheppard was in intensive care and had been removed from life support minutes earlier. Two weeks later, Sheppard was in a hospital room, able to talk and walk.

The dog owners have gotten close with victims like Sheppard. They have exchanged phone numbers, and Notch texts Sheppard to let her know when she is visiting. They hug each other. Sheppard and her husband talk to the group about transferring to a hospital closer to home in Southern California.

“It’s hard because now you make connections with these people,” Notch said.

“It’s hard not to get teary,” Pilkington added.

“I have,” Notch said.

“Because you look at what they’re going through,” Pilkington said, “and you know that when they leave here they have weeks and months and years before they’re going to be right.”

After seeing all the bullet holes, stitches and staples and anguish, Pilkington is at peace, knowing that he has helped people.

“I don’t find it emotionally stressful. I don’t take it home with me,” he said. “I feel pretty good about what we’ve done here.”

Contact Madelyn Reese at or 702-383-0497. Follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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