Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry pivoted for the pandemic

  • A young man appreciated visiting with Myra and her handler, Dawn Mikulski of Des Plaines, back in the beginning of the pandemic. Lutheran Church Charities' comfort dogs have provided healing through virtual visits.

    A young man appreciated visiting with Myra and her handler, Dawn Mikulski of Des Plaines, back in the beginning of the pandemic. Lutheran Church Charities' comfort dogs have provided healing through virtual visits. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

 
Posted4/20/2021 6:00 AM

Dawn Mikulski of Des Plaines has witnessed the healing power that golden retrievers in Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry provide, but now she knows that these dogs have the same effect -- virtually.

Mikulski is a relatively new handler with the Northbrook-based ministry, partnering with Myra, a 4-year-old golden retriever. Myra, like all comfort dogs, is owned by a local Lutheran congregation, in this case St. Andrew's in Park Ridge, and a team of handlers works with her.

 

In a normal year, they visit schools, nursing facilities and hospitals, as well as respond to crisis or disaster situations, when invited.

A classroom at Immanuel Lutheran School in Batavia meets a few of Lutheran Church Charities' comfort dogs.
A classroom at Immanuel Lutheran School in Batavia meets a few of Lutheran Church Charities' comfort dogs. - Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

But as with everything else during the pandemic, the comfort dog ministry has had to pivot to a virtual presence, and it turns out the dogs still offer a bridge to compassionate ministry and healing.

"I set up Myra as if she is going on a regular visit," Mikulski explains about their virtual visits, "vested and bandanna on and looking her best."

She vividly remembers a young man that contacted the ministry in need of someone to talk to in the beginning of the pandemic.

"He was feeling very isolated, not able to see his family or friends," Mikulski says. "We talked for 30 to 40 minutes, just talked. I pet Myra for him and asked him to call her name and whistle.

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Handler Dawn Mikulski knows to have lots of toys available to keep Myra engaged while looking at the screen.
Handler Dawn Mikulski knows to have lots of toys available to keep Myra engaged while looking at the screen. - Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

"She looked right into the screen and he smiled," Mikulski added. "I think the visit reassured him that there are kind people in the world, even in troubled times."

As of last week, Lutheran Church Charities' Comfort Dog Ministry had made 360 of these virtual visits -- in 28 states -- during the pandemic.

Spokeswoman Deb Baran says these virtual visits provide pandemic relief to everyone, from individuals and schoolchildren, to first responders and residents in nursing facilities, unable to see family members.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We continue to provide support and love to help people cope with the loneliness, isolation or stress they may be feeling," Baran says.

Back in February, administrators with Immanuel Lutheran School in Batavia enlisted the comfort dogs to visit with 10 of their classrooms, from kindergarten through eighth grade.

The visit brought together 17 teams of handlers and their dogs, who came from across the country to spend time with students and teachers through Zoom, including from California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Donna Laughlin, principal of Immanuel Lutheran, says her students love animals and enjoyed their virtual visit.

"Our students have acclimated very well to our COVID protocols, so they understood that this was how the visit needed to be," Laughlin says. "They were able to hear about how the dogs help people in various ways, and that was very interesting to all of our students, no matter their age."

Brad Schroeder of Palatine and comfort dog Benjamin do a virtual visit.
Brad Schroeder of Palatine and comfort dog Benjamin do a virtual visit. - Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

Brad Schroeder of Palatine and the 3-year-old dog he handles, Benjamin, were among the group. Schroeder worked in public accounting and was a CFO for a few companies before he retired. He also is a Vietnam veteran and has volunteered with the ministry for nine years.

While he much prefers bringing the peace and serenity these dogs offer in person, he still sees the benefits of engaging with the dogs virtually, he says.

"It's difficult," he concedes. "We're asking dogs to look at a screen. That's why it takes a very engaged teacher, who lets the kids know how the visit works and she builds the level of excitement before we start."

Typically, Schroeder says, students write out questions before the visit. They often range from asking about the different places the dog has worked, to whether there are more female comfort dogs than males, and mostly about training procedures.

"The kids want to know how we train them not to bark, or whether they're afraid of anything," Schroeder says, explaining that the dogs go through 2,000 hours of training, including sessions amid loud noise and commotion to simulate disaster scenes.

"They also want to know what the dogs are like when we take their vest off," he adds.

Schroeder and Benjamin work together two to three times a week, and later this month they will visit virtually with students at Harper College preparing for finals.

"I love it," he says. "It's fun to interact with young people, to make a difference in their day and give them some happiness."

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