Lutheran Comfort Dogs Bring Love and Compassion to Those Affected by Tragedy

Comfort dog Cubby, a 4-year-old purebred golden retriever from Fort Collins, Colo., rests under the table at the La Quinta Inn in Newbury Park, Calif., after a long day of comforting victims of the wildfires in southern California. RNS photo by Cathleen Falsani

Early on the morning of Nov. 8, Bonnie Fear awoke at her home in Colorado to a two-word text message from Rich Martin, director of K-9 Ministries for Lutheran Church Charities in Chicago.

“Call me.”

Something terrible had happened, and Fear knew she was about to be deployed to wherever it was.

In no time, Fear was on a plane headed to Los Angeles, along with Cubby, the 4-year-old golden retriever she handles for the Lutheran Comfort Dog Ministry, and their ministry partner Carol Salander. Hours earlier, a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in suburban Thousand Oaks had claimed the lives of a dozen people, including students from California Lutheran and Pepperdine universities.

Cubby and her handlers are part of the Lutheran Comfort Dog Ministry run by Lutheran Church Charities of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

The ministry has more than 130 specially trained golden retrievers in 20 states, most of them owned and cared for by individual Lutheran congregations. Cubby’s home congregation is Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Colo.

“Our mission is to bring the mercy, compassion, presence and a bold proclamation of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering,” said Martin, who has been part of the comfort dog ministry since its inception shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “When we leave the house, God’s sending us, he’s deploying us.”

When Lutheran Church Charities disaster teams responded to the devastation along the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi 13 years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked them to help rescue people stranded by floodwaters who wouldn’t leave their homes without their pets.

“We started to see that canine-human bond at that time, and over the next few years we also started to see some other people who had their own dogs that were working with people in times of stress and grief,” Martin said.

After a mass shooting killed five students and injured 21 others at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb on Valentine’s Day 2008, a campus minister asked Martin whether he could find a few therapy dogs to bring to the school for a few hours to comfort students.

That was the birth of the Lutheran Comfort Dog Ministry. It started with four golden retrievers, the first of which was placed with a congregation in Hawthorne Woods, Ill.

Beginning when they’re 8 weeks old, the comfort dogs undergo 2,000 hours of training before they’re deployed in a crisis, whether it’s a natural disaster or a human-made calamity such as a mass shooting.

In recent years, the dogs and their handlers have been deployed to a series of disasters, including hurricanes Sandy and Harvey, the deadly tornado in Joplin, Mo., the Boston Marathon bombing and the Parkland, Sandy Hook and Las Vegas mass shootings.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service, Cathleen Falsani