Chicago-area K-9 Comfort Dogs, a ministry from Lutheran Church Charities (LCC), have been aiding in the healing in Newtown, Connecticut, since shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy occurred Friday, December 14, 2012.
On Jan. 1, Ladel, a Comfort Dog from St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Hawthorn Woods, left with a team of dogs and handlers for Newtown. Ladel was invited to Newtown High School to provide the unconditional love and compassion that define what Comfort Dogs are, and what they do.
The last few months have been busy for Ladel as she recently served in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy devastated the area.
Ladel was the first Comfort Dog assigned to a church. St. Matthew obtained Ladel from one of the congregation members who works for Lutheran Church Charities (LCC).
“We had wanted to get a puppy and here was an opportunity to get a fully trained, beautiful golden retriever,” said Deb Kinne, Lade's primary handler. “It was a match made in Heaven.”
She explained what makes Comfort Dogs so uniquely perfect for the job of healing.
“These dogs are trained from the time they are puppies. They are bred for this,” Kinne said. She said one of the first tests of whether a dog is Comfort Dog material comes when they are very small. The puppies are placed on the trainer’s hand and if they wiggle and fuss, they will not go into Comfort Dog training.
The training is very rigorous, she said. While Ladel was trained by the breeder, LCC had a program at Dwight Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Southern Illinois, in which the inmates trained the dogs. However, due to cutbacks, the prison is set to be closed. “It’s breaking our hearts. It provided these women training for fuure jobs and it changed their outlook,” she said.
Comfort Dogs are fully trained to be a calm and reassuring presence. When they have their service vest on, they know they are working. They also seem to possess an instinct that tells them when people are hurting.
“The dogs know who to go to, who needs them. The people just pet them or will sometimes lay their head on the dog,” Kinne said.
She recalled visiting a Brooklyn preschool where three distraught families were living after Hurricane Sandy. The children would approach the dogs gingerly and lightly touch a paw and then run away. “One little girl started giggling and fell back on the floor laughing. It was great to see the smiling. It was really good,” she said.
Besides their comforting nature and training, one of the reasons Comfort Dogs are suited to aid in disasters and tragedies, is that their handlers are available.
“The people who have them need to be available. When Hurricane Sandy occurred, a day after we were called, we went there,” Kinne said. “I personally love to travel and I have a flexible job.”
Comfort Dogs are invited to disaster situations through LCC. Ladel also serves locally at nursing homes, schools and wherever she can provide comfort. Fifteen people are trained to handle Ladel.
Comfort Dogs started back in 2008 with the tragic shooting at Northern Illnois University, when a group of people from LCC and dogs visited. Several weeks later, students asked for the dogs to return and the Comfort Dogs have been providing compassion and support wherever needed since. The team has grown to 60 canines in six states, according to Yocum in an interview with Best in Show Daily.
Kinne hopes to continue to help with the healing Comfort Dogs have already brought to Newtown.
One of the stories that touched her was of a child who had not spoken about the shooting, but upon contact with a Comfort Dog, the boy told the dog everything that had happened that tragic day.
“We feel blessed to be able to help the healing in some way,” Kinne said.