New comfort dog at Elgin church a way to 'bring love into the community'
The job of the newest staff member of King of Glory Lutheran Church in Elgin is to spread love ... on four paws.
Julia, a 1½-year-old golden retriever, is a trained comfort dog who joined the church two weeks ago. Her work is all about connecting with people, Pastor Doug Swanson said. "We were looking for ways we could bring love into the community," he said.
"She is a working animal. She's not a pet," he said. "She gets up and goes to work. ... The idea is to be able to interact with our community, visit nursing homes, school facilities, anywhere we can think of, where we can take her and use her as a way of loving on people around us."
Julia was trained by Lutheran Church Charities, which has had a police dog comfort dog ministry program since 2008.
The church raised $15,000 for training expenses and waited nearly two years on a waiting list, Swanson said. The church owns the dog while Lutheran Church Charities owns her comfort dog vest, which means that if Julia were to fail in her duties, her status as comfort dog could be revoked, he explained.
Julia lives with her caregiver, church member Matt Ponsolle, and his family in South Elgin. Ponsolle and Swanson are among 11 Elgin church members who were trained as comfort dog handlers as part of the program.
Handlers train three days to get to know the dogs and the commands they follow, as well as how they connect with people, Ponsolle said.
Julia has adapted well to her new home and promptly responds to commands such as "stand," "stay," "walk backward," "go on lap" and more, Ponsolle said, although she occasionally strays in her behavior, such as by enthusiastically trying to lick a reporter's face on a recent morning.
When she's out and about, people truly gravitate toward Julia, whose vest says "Please pet me," Ponsolle said.
"It's about building a relationship, finding out if (people) have needs and praying for them," he said. "Sometimes you only have 15 seconds you might try to talk to people, sometimes it might last an hour."
Lutheran Church Charities' program started 10 years ago with four dogs and has grown to about 130, said Tim Hetzner, the organization's president and CEO. Dogs get 2,000 hours of training at the Northbrook headquarters or in Nebraska, and are placed with churches, schools and universities, he said.
"This is the unique thing about our ministry ... for most groups dogs are handled by a person, and that person owns the dog. In our case, no one person owns the dog," he said.
The program has a component for military veterans and their families, and active and retired police officers, he said.
Lutheran comfort dogs have responded to several national tragedies, said Swanson, who has experience with a comfort dog at a Darien church. That includes shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and Pulse nightclub and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
"When I got called here, I always wanted to get involved with another comfort dog," he said. "It's really about loving the people in our community, finding ways to make connections. We're not particularly concerned with whether they come to King of Glory. We recognize life is hard and if we can do something to put a smile on people's faces, that's what we want to do."
Julia, a golden retriever, is a comfort dog with King of Glory Lutheran Church in Elgin.
She has her own "Julia Comfort Dog" Facebook page at facebook.com/JuliaComfortDog.
She graduates from training during the 9:30 a.m. service Sunday at the church, 36W720 Hopps Road.
Anyone interested in getting a visit from Julia can call (847) 931-1520 or email email@example.com.
Anyone interested in volunteering as an apprentice comfort dog trainer can contact Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry at (866) 455-6466 or email LCC@LutheranChurchCharities.org.