Golden Retrievers Bring Comfort, Joy To Disaster Survivors

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Dogs have long distinguished themselves in the service of humans, both informally as trusted companions and professionally as seeing-eye or sniffer dogs. But rarely have the two roles dovetailed so completely as in the case of the K-9 Comfort Dogs.

Operated by Lutheran Church Charities of Addison, Illinois, the Comfort Dogs function primarily as roving furry healers, dispatched to places of crisis — most recently to post-tornado Moore, Oklahoma — and to local hospitals, schools and assisted living facilities to bring calm and, yes, comfort, through eagerly received pets, scratches and belly rubs.

As Richard Martin, co-director of the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, explains to Samaritanmag, “Our job as handlers is to show up and shut up and let the dog and the individual interact with each other. And it really brings a calmness. We’re not there to counsel though we do work with professional counselors. We are just there to be with somebody when they’re going through a tough time in their life.”

It’s fitting that the Comfort Dogs — Golden Retrievers all — do their most high-profile work at the scene of horrendous disasters such as Oklahoma, Hurricane Sandy and Newtown, Connecticut where 20 children and six adults were brutally gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December.

The Comfort Dogs concept came about in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “We were doing disaster response work in New Orleans and we noticed a lot of people weren’t leaving their homes because they couldn’t be rescued with their pets,” explains Martin. “We provided some volunteers with boats and started rescuing people with their pets. And from that, we starting adding Golden Retrievers to our Ministry.

“Since then,” Martin continues, “we have grown quite a bit. We have over 60 Golden Retrievers in the Ministry right now working in multiple states including Indiana, Illinois, Connecticut, Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska, working with Lutheran Churches and schools in each area.”

As for exclusively using Golden Retrievers, Martin says “They just seem to be the most gentle, loving, approachable, non-aggressive, easily trainable dogs out there.”

In disaster situations, the Comfort Dogs are invited to come — usually by Lutheran Churches on the ground — and their expenses and those of their handlers are covered entirely by donation. “We never take money from the people we serve,” Martin says, “and we never just show up.

“We go where we are invited and from that point, we put our appeals through our Facebook page or our website for people to donate. Media coverage also helps us raise our profile [CNN’s Anderson Cooper is a big supporter who has profiled the organization]. We believe God will provide and He takes care of it.”

As might be expected, the training of the dogs — at a cost Martin cannot pinpoint, citing the individual nature of the animals vis-à-vis how quickly or slowly they learn — is protracted and involved. “In terms of training, it’s hard to track the amount of time and hours are invested in each dog. It’s quite great,” Martin says, adding that not every pooch is cut out for the job.

“We work with the breeders to identify dogs that would be good for the kind of work we do; dogs with a service line in them that are relaxed. We get the puppies at about five weeks and at eight weeks we start our training.

“Typically we put a little puppy vest on them and they start to shadow some of our bigger dogs and we put them into an obedience training program for about the next nine months. We use positive reinforcement with the dogs and do everything in-house with our own trainers who actually train the dogs to a level of a service dog.

“We then expose them to different groups — infants, adults, those with developmental disabilities, veterans, high school and college kids. We take them on limited disaster response outings and so, by the end of their training, we have a really good predictability level and we know they’re going to be very calm, obedient, loving and gentle animals.”

When not deployed for disaster response, Martin says the dogs stay very busy. “They are constantly out in the communities they serve, in hospitals, assisted living facilities, programs for autistic children, developmentally disabled children, seniors’ homes, working with veterans.

“We also have some programs with elementary school kids, teaching them simple things like how to approach a dog, how to ask permission to approach a dog and how to pet a dog.”

Multiple handlers are trained with each Comfort Dog, another factor impacting the overall costs associated with training them. At the end of the day, each Comfort Dog goes home with either a caregiver or a backup caregiver where they “play and relax just like other dogs,” Martin explains, adding that many of the canines are named for biblical figures.

In a thoroughly 21st century twist, each LCC K-9 Comfort Dog, from Luther to Samuel, Maggie to Miriam, has its own Facebook page.

And why does Martin think the Comfort Dogs are so effective? “There is a natural bond between animals and humans,” he says. “People are getting more in tune with the benefits of something like pet therapy, especially with veterans where dogs are playing a part in their rehabilitation and repair.

“What we find when we work with people who have been displaced by disaster or natural disaster is they miss the things about home. It’s a question of separation anxiety. The dogs bring a natural relationship to bear.

“When we went to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, my wife, Dona — who is co-director of the Ministry — expected to be there for five days when the kids came back to school. Those five days turned into five weeks. And boy, your heart just goes out for everything these people have gone through.

“Same thing in Moore, Oklahoma after the tornado. We met kids that had to crawl out from the rubble. It was the dogs that helped these children get through the process of healing by talking about it.

“One child, eight-year-old Courtney Brown — who attended a school where seven other children were killed — spent some time with our dog Ruthie, who visited her in hospital.  Courtney said, ‘Do you want to hear about what happened to me?’ And she described in vivid detail what had happened in the school that day.

“It’s very humbling to be there and to allow people to go through the process of healing and, in some cases, grieving.”

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.