Lynn Buhrke of Palatine and her Golden retriever, Chewie, have been deployed to countless disaster areas, including the days immediately following the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
On Thursday, they responded to a different calling.
They were among the 70 dogs and handlers from around the country to gather at Trinity Lutheran Church in Roselle for the second national convention of the K9 Comfort Dog Ministry, sponsored by Lutheran Church Charities in Addison.
"I've been to so many disaster areas, that it's nice to be together with everyone -- at a happy occasion," Buhrke said. "There's so much camaraderie here. Occasionally, we have to build each other up."
The convention took place last year at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Barrington, but moved to Roselle for its expanded facilities, including a second gym, which could accommodate a day care for the comfort dogs when they were off duty.
"They're trained not to interact with other dogs when they're working," says Dick Bernard of Palatine, "so this is social time for them."
The two-day convention included sessions on advanced handler training from canine specialist Alex Brooks of Des Plaines, as well as care for the caregiver and K9 massage therapy.
It also featured speakers, including the Rev. Rob Morris, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, Conn., who spoke Thursday about the comfort the dogs provided to the schoolchildren, their families and the entire community over the past year.
Rich Martin, who coordinates the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry with his wife, Dona, also delivered a state of the ministry address to the handlers.
In the last year alone, the ministry responded to Storm Sandy, Sandy Hook Elementary, the Boston Marathon bombings, the West Texas explosion, the outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma City, and the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain firefighters in Arizona.
Their visibility at these disasters -- and their local visits to people who need comfort the rest of the time -- has led to an expansion of the ministry. This year, the ministry will place dogs at Lutheran churches in three more states, bringing their national coverage to 11.
In fact, leaders of the program are establishing their own training center in Northbrook for golden retriever puppies. It's opening this week. The newest litter will begin training on Thursday for the ministry, with a list of churches waiting to adopt them.
Barbara Granato and Brad Schroeder, both of Arlington Heights, are hoping their church, St. Peter Lutheran in Arlington Heights, will get one of the puppies. Both already serve as handlers for Hannah, who responded to Newtown, among others.
"These dogs absorb a lot of sadness," Granato says. "They need time like this to decompress."