Disaster. It strikes when you least expect it. It leaves individuals and, often times, communities feeling uncertain, anxious and heartbroken. Although it takes time to work through the overwhelming emotions that come along with an unexpected event, Lutheran Church Charities’comfort dogs have seemed to meet a need in the grieving process recently.
A registered service of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Lutheran Church Charities’ (LCC) comfort dog program was conceived in 2008 when several golden retriever dogs were asked to be at Northern Illinois University after the February campus shooting. Two tents were set up on campus: one for counselors and one for the comfort dogs.
“Guess where everybody went,” LCC Director of K-9 Deployments Rich Martin said. “They went to the dogs.”
Seeing how the dogs comforted people during their time of need, Lutheran Church Charities President Tim Hetzner decided to begin the comfort dog ministry later that year in August.
“The dogs are safe, they don’t ask questions, they are non-threatening and they give unconditional love,” Martin said.
He also said studies have shown that being with a dog lowers heart rate, blood pressure and helps with the production of oxytocin, a natural “feel-good” hormone.
The organization started with four dogs that traveled with their handlers regionally.
But when 20 children and six staff members were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012, the school’s administration and counselors invited the Lutheran Church Charities comfort dogs, alongside other comfort dogs, to be with students as returned the building after the shooting.
“We never go anywhere where we are not invited; we only go where we are invited,” Martin said.
The LCC comfort dogs were also asked to come to the site of the Boston Marathon after the bombing in 2013.
“When the team goes out, the handler and the dog, they are to be a support, a comfort, a presence; just to be there with somebody when they are going through their time of grief, morning, uncertainty, anxiety; to be silent and present with those individuals,” Martin said.
He also recognized that LCC leaves the therapy work to the licensed professionals: social workers and counselors.
“They are the ones who are there for the long haul,” Martin said. “They are the ones who are there when we leave. They are professionals. So we leave their area of expertise to them to be with the kids who need their help in getting through things.”
Nine years later, LCC has over 100 dogs in service and training in 22 states throughout the United States. The dogs still travel locally, working five to six days a week for three to four hours at a time based on the need.
“Once they get introduced into their community, they get recognized and requested. They have their own calendars,” he said.
Martin said the dogs and their handlers “share the mercy, compassion and proclamation of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering and in need.”
They visit schools when students pass away, during testing time or for health education programs. The dogs help with hospice care, nursing or assisted living homes, victim advocacy through the state’s attorney’s office and work at a pediatric dentistry office to help children with special needs.
While with the comfort dog, Martin said people often open up about other issues they are processing through in their own lives.
In 2014, the Lutheran Church Charities organization started the Kare9 Military Mission to provide veterans with an opportunity to process their thoughts. The handlers for the ministry are veterans, also.
“We find that Veterans like to open-up and communicate more in the presence of other Veterans,” Martin said. “When the Veteran handler and the dog go out, the canine wears a camo vest to connect with them that way.”
LCC also uses former police officers as volunteers in the K-9 comfort dog ministry to help police officers and their families in a time of need.
“There’s really no end to how we can connect with people,” he said.
Each dog is selected from a breeder with high breeding standards to begin training when they are 8-weeks old. They are paired with a couple of handlers so the dog gets used to being around a variety of people. The dog and the handlers attend a weekly group training and individual training. By the end of the training, which takes 12-18 months, each dog has nearly 2000 hours of training.
Because the dogs work most weekdays, they are partnered with a few handlers to make sure the dogs are available. Each handler is carefully vetted.
“Our ministry is not about the dog,” Martin said. “The dog is a bridge. We look for individuals who have a heart to serve other people.”
Comfort dogs were present at Lincoln Trail Elementary Monday morning as students processed the loss of classmate Joel Roberts. The Mahomet-Seymour School District also enlisted comfort dogs when Mahomet-Seymour High School students Matthew Prather, Madeline McNulty and Jacob Hamilton passed away.
To support the Lutheran Church Charity comfort dog mission, which runs solely off of donations and never charges the people they serve, make a donation online or offer a prayer of encouragement and support.
“It’s a humbling experience to be out there with people in their time of need,” Martin said. “And we are grateful that we have that opportunity and that God has given us this wonderful creation of dogs to help us do that and be that bridge.”