There’s a rising trend of using Comfort Dogs to help people deal with stress and trauma. The benefits of petting a dog on blood pressure and soothing a troubled mind are well documented. What separates the Lutheran Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministries from other programs is that in addition to a highly trained golden retriever, these comfort dogs come with handlers who receives specialized training to share the love of Christ with people in need.
In the Missouri District, several congregations are working with comfort dog ministries to build relationships and share Christ’s love with people in their toughest moments. Ruth Agne and Sharon Shearman of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Des Peres, Deaconess Ruth McDonnell and Sue Nielsen of Timothy Lutheran Church in St. Louis and Dennis and Julie Lueck Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Charles are all active handlers of comfort dog ministries.
Noah, the comfort dog for Timothy Lutheran Church, came to St. Louis because Sue Nielsen saw a special on television about comfort dogs after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Ruth McDonnell, a deaconess, arranged for the congregation to meet with another LCMS deaconess who was working with a comfort dog ministry. Within a year, the congregation had raised enough money to step into this unique ministry.
Noah was a little over a year old when he graduated from his training, which included more than 2,000 hours. Named after the Old Testament patriarch, Noah carries cards in his work vest that contain scripture on the back of his business card. Kids are especially enthusiastic about collecting the business cards of the different comfort dogs. All the comfort dogs have biblical names and a corresponding bible verse. The vests say, “Pet Me,” because many service dogs should not be touched while on duty.
Comfort dogs are different than other service dogs (such as a seeing eye dog), because one of their primary jobs is to attract attention and draw people into conversations with their handlers, who can then pray with people, talk about their congregations and offer the comfort of the Gospel that is appropriate for that situation. Mr. and Mrs. Lueck have taken Zillah the Comfort Dog to nursing homes, libraries, adult day cares, hospitals, funerals, and many other places. Most of these appointments are publicized by the inviting organization.
Lutheran Church Charities will deploy comfort dogs to tragedies, such as shootings. One of the dogs, Tabby, went to visit the memorials that went up after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. Mrs. Shearman said one teen who had been in the school the day of the shooting had never shared her experience with anyone, but she felt able to discuss it in with Tabby.
Sometimes, the dogs are able to jumpstart conversations on the way to the intended site. One the way to the memorial, Mrs. Shearman saw the dog pulled towards a woman, who said “God must have sent her here.” One of this woman’s close relatives had just been admitted to the hospital and
she needed prayer. All of the handlers agree that there are times when the dog can sense something people can’t, and that trusting the dog’s instincts have led to many encounters with people receptive to support in that moment.
Mrs. Nielsen often works with an adult daycare center with Noah. She received a call one day asking if she could bring Noah, because they’d had an emergency response situation and their clients were dealing with the trauma from that experience.
Because the reasons people gravitate towards the dog’s calming presence, which gives the handler the opportunity to assess the best way to serve that person. Deaconess McConnell says, “As people are petting the dog, you can pray with them, you can let them know you’re there to share the love of Christ.”