Round Lake-based Canines 4 Comfort provides 'life-changing' support
They're described as Canines 4 Comfort.
But the dogs gifted to veterans, children, police departments and schools throughout Lake County and beyond the past several years have provided more than just comfort, say those who've benefitted from them.
They've brought laughs, smiles, joy and more support than many expected.
"It's really been life-changing for us," said Jennifer Graves, whose 8-year-old son, Logan, received a goldendoodle named Ozzie from Canines 4 Comfort last year.
"Things were really hard before Ozzie came. Now, it's just been a blessing ... not only having Ozzie, but having the support of the organization," Graves said.
Operated completely by volunteers, the Round Lake-based nonprofit Canines 4 Comfort trains and places a variety of dogs -- from purebred golden and Labrador retrievers and German shepherds to mixes from area pet shelters -- with veterans and children in need of psychiatric services or emotional support.
Dogs also have gone to area police departments and schools to help defuse emotional situations and provide a calm and nurturing environment. Paired with teams of first responders, the dogs have brought goodwill to neighborhoods, provided relief to staff dealing with traumatic situations, and assisted with witness and victim interviews and debriefs.
Since 2019, Canines 4 Comfort has placed 18 dogs and has a waiting list. Five more are expected to graduate soon, and four new dogs are entering the program.
"What we do a little differently than other organizations is when we think we have a good match, we pair the person and that dog up and have them go through training together," said Lisa Wernli of Antioch, one of the co-founders and the organization's executive director of operations.
Relying on donations, Canines 4 Comfort hopes to raise money at the fourth annual Strut Your Mutt event.
The charity walk will begin at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 17 at Caboose Park, 37908 Fairfield Road, Lake Villa. Along with a family fun walk or run, it includes the chance to meet dogs in training, a custom T-shirt, free food from Antioch Pizza, and a dog parade. Registration is at canines4comfort.ejoinme.org/MyEvents/StrutYourMutt2022.
"It's just intended to be a fun day with families and dogs," Wernli said.
The organization doesn't have a physical building. Dogs in training, beginning at the age of 5 months to about 1 year, live in the homes of volunteer "puppy raisers." They initially are trained in a parking lot and space provided by the Counseling Center of Grayslake.
"We don't hand over a fully trained dog," Wernli said. "In essence then, we're training the handler on how to work with the dog, and we're specifically training the dog on how to meet the needs of that handler."
The entire process averages about a year to 18 months, but even when the dogs are given to their handlers, the organization remains involved with postgraduate training, check-ins and overall support, Wernli said.
They tell recipients, "We hope you like us because we're going to become your extended family," she said.
Graves said Ozzie not only has helped her son gain confidence, but he's also provided her stress relief and a connection to other parents dealing with similar situations.
"It's sort of more like a community," said Graves, who sought out Canines 4 Comfort after researching other sources. The cost of dogs through other services -- averaging $15,000 to $30,000 -- were too expensive, she said.
The Canines 4 Comfort trainer traveled to Graves' home in Poplar Grove weekly to help the child and dog adjust. Ozzie provides a calming presence for all who meet him, Graves said.
"He can somehow tell when someone needs him," she said.
When Canines 4 Comfort began, the thought was to help pair dogs with veterans. The first veteran recipient, Sonny Pesek of Waukegan, has become the organization's military liaison.
As word spread of the organization and the pandemic hit, the scope expanded. Along with referrals from therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, families, schools and police departments sought out the dogs.
"People come to us. We don't have an application on our website because, quite frankly, I don't think we could handle the volume," said Wernli, whose 19-year-old daughter, Daria, a junior trainer and service dog ambassador, inspired her to pursue the organization.
"I've seen the life-changing impact it's had on my daughter and her ability to become a successful adult," Wernli said. "I know people struggle in their own ways. If we can help one person have the success she's had, then I've done my job."
Along with individuals, dogs have been placed with police departments in Bartlett, Streamwood and St. Charles, with plans to place dogs soon with departments in Wheeling and Oakwood Terrace. Among the schools with dogs are Greenbriar School and The Cove School in Northbrook, and a dog is expected to be placed soon at Everett Elementary School in Lake Forest.
Maverick, a golden retriever, joined the Bartlett Police Department last year. The dog lives in the police department, which is staffed 24 hours a day. He has a spot in the records department and joins officers throughout the day in the office and the community.
"He's been the best addition to our department," said Sgt. Tom Alagna, who, with a title of facility dog coordinator, is basically one of Maverick's handlers.
He's been "powerful and impactful" in traumatic situations, especially those involving young people, and he's become a valuable asset at community events, Alagna said.
"He's the star of every one we've had," he said.
The department was the first to work with Canines 4 Comfort, with others following. The organization donated the dog and found a sponsor to provide his food.
"I can't say enough good things about Canines 4 Comfort," Alagna said. "The benefit is just absolutely incredible."