Meet Levi, comfort dog for East Dundee church

In the six months that Levi the comfort dog has been with the Immanuel Lutheran Church congregation in East Dundee, he's been busy. He's been so busy that people can't call him a comfort dog; he's a working dog.

The 2-year-old golden retriever was put to work shortly after he arrived, said the Rev. Phillip Baerwolf, associate pastor.

"Every weekend, he's been welcoming parishioners at services. He's also been going to nursing homes, the school every week, to O'Hare (airport), where he spent time with terminally ill children who were going on a flight at Christmas," Baerwolf said.

He's also spent some time at the church's booth during Heritage Fest in September and went back to O'Hare during the recent holidays, where he and other dogs calmed travelers' frayed nerves.

This month, Levi and church members flew to Houston for a week to help residents rebuild their lives from when Hurricane Harvey hit the city in August.

Levi wasn't be able to swing a hammer, but he was there in case someone needed to hug a gentle dog between their rebuilding efforts.

"There's something about a dog that has a calming effect on people. When he's in the church, people gather around him and talk. Children get down on the floor and want to pet him," he said.

Fortunately, Levi has not had to respond to a family in crisis yet; another reason the congregation wanted a dog. When one occurs, he will be ready, though.

He is one of 100 golden retrievers in 22 states that has received 2,000 hours of training to respond to emergencies and communities in need, said Richard Martin, director of canine deployment for Lutheran Church Charities.

The organization trains the dogs and provides them to organizations. All of the canines are golden retrievers because the breed is gentle, intelligent and can calmly work in crisis situations. They are trained not to be startled by loud noises such as emergency vehicles and large crowds.

"We don't like to call them comfort dogs. We call them working dogs because that's what they do," Martin said. "They are trained to be with people in schools, hospital, nursing homes and hospice. They're kept busy.

They work 365 days of the year."

Baerwolf won't disagree with that. Levi has been working from the moment he arrived at the Route 72 church. One of his tasks is to teach people how dogs show unconditional love. Without a word spoken, a dog can touch and calm emotions of people hurting.

Every day, Levi works with people. He has 10 handlers who bring him to events. He also has families who keep him when he's not working.

Community members can follow the work he does and the places he goes by looking at Levi's Facebook page at Immanuel Lutheran Church-East Dundee.

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