Sharon Flaherty of Prospect Heights and her golden retriever, Jacob, were the first responders to offer comfort at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the mass shooting there on Valentine's Day in 2018.

Flaherty and her husband, Mike, are longtime volunteers with Lutheran Church Charities and its K-9 comfort dog ministry. They were vacationing in Florida at the time of the tragedy and were able to make it to school that same day.

While Flaherty's stories of comforting students and teachers within that first 24 hours are compelling, it is what happened after everyone left that made it into a new book written about working dogs.

"Extraordinary Dogs" by John Schlimm and Liz Stavrinides includes stories about 20 comfort dogs from Lutheran Church Charities. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

Author John Schlimm and photographer Liz Stavrinides launched their book titled "Extraordinary Dogs" Oct. 19 at the Lutheran Church Charities headquarters in Northbrook before embarking on a national tour.

The book recounts the work of more than 50 working dogs from across the United States, including 20 from Lutheran Church Charities. The book also includes chapters on search and rescue dogs, and bomb-detecting TSA dogs.

"The dogs in this book embody humility, compassion and heroism in every way," Schlimm said. "These dogs are on the front lines of our lives every day, bringing light and hope into some of the darkest places."

In the books, handlers from Lutheran Church Charities describe some of the many "ministry moments" from their crisis and disaster deployments, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Superstorm Sandy, and the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Flaherty recounted a story of one young high school student who was so terrified by the shooting that he could not return to school and would not speak. His parents contacted Flaherty and her husband to come to their home with Jacob.

Their son, who knew nothing of the impending visit, opened the front door and immediately exclaimed, "The comfort dog!"

"He immediately began talking about dogs -- how he wanted one and how he would train it," Flaherty says. "He hadn't spoken since the shooting. It was really quite a special moment."

The book includes Lutheran Church Charities dogs comforting veterans at Hines VA Hospital, as well as those serving in their own communities.

"Extraordinary Dogs" authors John Schlimm and Liz Stavrinides pose with handlers from Lutheran Church Charities, LCC's comfort dogs and a copy of the book. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

Lynn Ryan is the handler for JoJo, one of the comfort dogs sponsored by Living Christ Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights. Together, they regularly visit schools and nursing homes, but it is JoJo's regular stint at the pediatric dentistry office in Highland Park that made the book.

Ryan, who works as a pediatric dental assistant in the office, described bringing JoJo to the office to comfort patients who are anxious, including young people with special needs and those on the autism spectrum.

She described one young girl whose mother had tried several dentists before her daughter finally relaxed at Ryan's office -- with JoJo on her lap.

"She was just not receptive to new things," Ryan says of her young patient, "but now she has positive appointments, and her mother always books her appointments when JoJo is there."

Tim Hetzler, president and CEO of Lutheran Church Charities, says that when volunteers responded after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and saw how residents would not leave their homes without their animals, they witnessed the strong bonds between owners and their pets.

In 2008, volunteers first brought dogs to comfort students at Northern Illinois University after the campus shooting. That same year, the organization acquired its first of four comfort dogs -- two for use by its staff and two placed in churches. Lutheran Church Charities now has more than 130 comfort dogs -- all AKC purebred golden retrievers -- placed in 27 states. 

JoJo, one of the comfort dogs in the recently published book "Extraordinary Dogs," has a calming effect on people, including patients at a pediatric dentistry office in Highland Park. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

"No matter where you live, there are people hurting or in need of comfort," Hetzler says. "That's just the world we live in today. Petting or hugging one of our comfort dogs gives people a quiet moment to process whatever they are going through and begin the healing process."

"Extraordinary Dogs" is available at major booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and from St. Martin's Press -- Macmillan Publishers.

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