The golden retrievers of Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Dog Ministry have helped ease the pain in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., and Moore, Okla.
At Newtown, Conn., the dogs helped bring peace to the community after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Many of those injured, as well as first-responders, at the Boston Marathon bombings have had a friendly visit by the dogs.
On the coverLCC K-9 comfort dogs Luther, Ruthie, Shami, Susie and Moses visit a patient at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, Mass., after the recent Boston Marathon bombings. Photo Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities.
Locally, the dogs visited flood victims in Marseilles, near Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle County. They visit schools, churches, retirement homes -- anywhere people need the compassionate, unconditional love of a dog.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Addison-based LCC procured three flat-bottom boats in order to rescue people and their pets.
"That's when we made the first connection between people and their pets," said Dona Martin, co-director of K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, "and it's a strong bond."
The organization started with a couple of golden retrievers, who were already trained, and began responding to other disasters. After the shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008, the group realized there were many hurting people, not only those in a disaster.
The small group began visiting schools, chapel services, nursing homes and hospitals. Today, there are 35 K-9 Comfort Dogs in eight states.
Martin and her husband, Richard, who live in Lake Barrington, are both dog handlers for LLC. They spent more than five weeks in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook tragedy. K-9 Comfort Dogs and handlers arrived the day after the school shooting.
"For many of the children, the dogs were the only reason they wanted to go back to school," Martin said.
Each week, six to 10 dogs were rotated in and out of Newtown, working out of the middle school and high school. A typical day would begin at 6:15 a.m. at the high school. The handlers and dogs would greet the teachers and staff upon arrival. They then greeted students. Then the team would split; part would work with counselors at the school, while others went to Sandy Hook.
"We became a part of that community," Martin said. "We were invited to fundraisers and events for all the families."
After the Boston Marathon bombings, six to eight dogs were deployed and arrived the day after the crime. Working through a local church, handlers and dogs saw many of the people affected by visiting hospitals, first responders and fire departments. Teams also visited with students on college campuses in the area.
"One of the ladies who had several surgeries on her legs took her first steps with two of our dogs, one on each side," Martin said.
After the recent tornado in Moore, Okla., a team of eight dogs and handlers were sent out the next day. They have been making hospital visits and are set up in a church to visit with people from the community. They will also visit privately with families when requested to do so. Teams will rotate and will stay in Oklahoma as long as they are needed.
Why were golden retrievers chosen to be K-9 Comfort Dogs?
"They are very approachable," Martin said. "They are cuddly and very trainable; they learn quickly."
The group works with several breeders who are known for having dogs with very calm temperaments in their breeding. They start looking at selecting pups when they are 5½ weeks old. At 8 weeks, when they are released from their mothers, they start their training.
Until the facility closed, inmates at Dwight Women's Correctional Facility trained the dogs. Those interested in training dogs had to apply to get in the program. The dogs stayed with the women 24/7, from the time the dogs were 8 weeks old until they were 10 or 11 months old.
"It was a wonderful part of our ministry," Martin said. "We had four dogs in training at a time."
Now the training is done by Master Trainers, which is affiliated with LLC. Currently there are nine dogs at different stages of training: Eddie, Martin, Zoey, Jessy, Isaiah, Micah, Lila, Phoebe and Suzie. They will be trained to service-dog level, although they won't actually be service dogs; they will be comfort dogs.
Training includes all obedience commands and some service-task commands, such as turning a light switch on and off, opening and closing a door and fetching a water bottle. The K-9 Comfort Dogs are trained to not jump, bark or lick when they are working.
"Right now, one of our dogs is working with the Lockport Fire Department fire chaplain. The dog is learning to tunnel and bring lifelines and water to people who are trapped," Martin said.
According to Martin, who is also one of the trainers, socialization of the dogs is important. So part of the training includes taking the dogs out into the community and working with them. Part of training includes meeting all kinds of people, in all kinds of clothes. A shopping mall is a great training arena as it also has elevators, escalators and stairs -- things the dogs will encounter on a regular basis. The dogs learn to be comfortable on different surfaces, such as wood, gravel, grass, cement and metal. They learn that sounds like pots and pans banging, doorbells ringing, garage doors opening, various construction noises, sirens and heavy traffic are sounds not to be feared.
"We take them outside when it thunders, so they know it's a normal thing," Martin said.
Trainers also do a lot of touching on the dogs' paws, tails, body and mouth so the dogs will be ready for the hugs and pats from strangers they will receive when working.
The dogs live with their caregivers. Caregivers may be handlers, but it isn't a requirement. The dogs are trained to work with multiple handlers. Depending on the handler's chosen ministry, the dogs go to nursing homes, participate in reading programs at libraries, work with children with developmental disabilities, visit hospitals and interact with veterans at VFWs, in addition to their disaster work.
Learning to wear the signature blue vest is part of their training. Besides the dog's name, the words "Please Pet Me" are on each vest. When the vest is on, the dog knows he or she is working. Dogs only work two or three hour shifts. They, too, need a break from taking on all that is brought to them. Once the vest is removed, it's time to run and play.
Each dog has a business-card sized trading card, with a picture of the dog and information about him or her. On each card is the sentence, "A dog is a friend who brings a calming influence, allowing people to open up their hearts and receive help for what is affecting them."
Martin believes the dogs have an instinct for those who are hurting and will gravitate to those people.
"The dogs take on a lot of the emotion being brought to them when being petted," Martin said. "People tell their stress to the dog, who offers unconditional love and isn't judgmental.
"I think in many of these disasters where people are hurting so deeply, dogs help in that healing process and lessen that time just a little bit."
For more information on the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry of LLC, visit www.K9Comfort.org or log on to: Facebook.com/K9Comfort.