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posted: 4/12/2014 8:00 AM

Humans' turn to be trained, with comfort dogs' help

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  • Video: Comfort Dog Class at Harper

  • John Sharpe walks Luther while Joanne Walker of Schaumburg, left, and Toni Higgins-Thrash of Arlington Heights encourage the pair. After an eight-week online class, students came to a Harper classroom in Prospect Heights Friday to work with the dogs directly.

       John Sharpe walks Luther while Joanne Walker of Schaumburg, left, and Toni Higgins-Thrash of Arlington Heights encourage the pair. After an eight-week online class, students came to a Harper classroom in Prospect Heights Friday to work with the dogs directly.
    Joe Lewnard/ jlewnard@ dailyherald.com

  • Luther plops in the lap of Lori Bonefas of Lake Zurich as Harper College students put their online lessons into practice working with therapeutic dogs.

       Luther plops in the lap of Lori Bonefas of Lake Zurich as Harper College students put their online lessons into practice working with therapeutic dogs.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Luther, a golden retriever, visits with John Sharpe, a Palatine student in the Harper class.

       Luther, a golden retriever, visits with John Sharpe, a Palatine student in the Harper class.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Linda Cecchi heaps praise on Martin, a newcomer to the comfort dog ranks.

       Linda Cecchi heaps praise on Martin, a newcomer to the comfort dog ranks.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 

Merv Daehler twisted the leash around his fingers.

The Antioch man sometimes fumbled. After suffering a stroke four years ago, simple tasks don't come easily anymore.

"That's the way life is for me," Daehler, 71, said. "And I have to accept that's the way it is."

He had to relearn how to walk. He spent months in physical therapy. Worst of all, he had to retire after more than four decades as a veterinarian.

But he knows he's lucky. Doctors first thought he wouldn't survive.

"I felt there was some purpose," Daehler said. "Maybe this is part of it."

And then he gestured to the other end of that leash, to a peppy golden retriever called Martin.

Daehler is one of 20 students in a new Harper College course teaching them to become handlers of dogs deployed to natural disasters and tragedies. The course is so popular -- there's a waiting list -- that Harper will offer it again in the fall.

Without much sensation in his hands, Daehler says he tends to drop the leash. But he's determined to graduate and be able to go on hospital and nursing home visits with K-9 Comfort Dogs Ministry.

Lutheran Church Charities, an Addison-based group that runs Comfort Dogs, has teamed with Harper to meet the growing demand for the pooches.

They designed lessons to prepare volunteers for proper grooming and therapeutic services. After an eight-week online class, students came to a Harper classroom in Prospect Heights Friday to work with the dogs firsthand.

"This is the payoff," Arlington Heights student Katie Wachlin said. "This is the fun part. These dogs are amazing."

One of their tests was handling the canines around patients in wheelchairs. Their cues must be seamless.

"Ruthie, lap!" Comfort Dogs Director Dona Martin called.

The 2-year-old golden retriever steps up to a seated Toni Higgins-Thrash and rests her two front paws carefully across the Arlington Heights student's knees. Ruthie must distribute her weight onto her back legs, so the patient feels no discomfort.

"That's it," said Martin, encouraging the canine. "Beautiful."

Ruthie is the veteran. She visited Sandy Hook Elementary students who had not spoken in four days after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults in the Newtown, Conn., school. She toured tornado-ravaged neighborhoods in Washington, Ill. And she welcomed the bear hugs from the families of 19 firefighters who died in an Arizona wildfire.

"She's had a very, very busy year," Martin said.

Sometimes, the trauma takes its toll on the furry counselors.

"They take on a lot of the emotion that's given them right through that leash," Martin said.

Like their human companions, each dog grapples with stress in different ways.

Ruthie yawns. Handlers know to take her blue vest off and toss her a ball.

"They need to just be a dog for a little while," Martin said.

On Friday, Daehler beamed when Martin obeyed his commands.

"How about that?" he said.

The self-described "farm boy" grew up in Chadwick, Ill., and showed pigs in county fairs. When he was a high school sophomore, he watched one of his sows give birth to 10 pigs and die shortly after the delivery.

It was the moment he decided to become a veterinarian. He would go on to treat dogs, cats and other small pets in a Beach Park practice he later sold.

Training with Comfort Dogs brings all that back.

"I can do it," Daehler said. "I know I can."

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