Lutheran Church Charities, based in Northbrook, Ill., uses comfort dogs to help calm people, not just in the aftermath of a disaster, but also in dealing with life's daily stress.
"They are a bridge that give people permission, people that are in need or suffering, give them permission just to open up and just to relax a little bit and realize that tomorrow probably will be a better day," said Jeanne Moore, dog trainer at Lutheran Church Charities.
The comfort dog program was inspired by an amazing observation during Lutheran Church Charities' disaster response work after Hurricane Katrina.
"We saw people who would literally risk their life rather than part with their pet and we saw that healing bond that was there because of it," said Lutheran Church Charities President Tim Hetzner.
With that in mind, the LCC K-9 comfort dog program was created, with four dogs in 2008. They chose golden retrievers for their intelligence and lovable nature to visit schools, nursing homes, hospitals and churches, as well as disaster situations.
"The puppies are right around eight weeks when we get them," Moore said. "Not only do they have to have good obedience skills, they also have to have good manners and be able to go out in public, to be able to be socialized with objects."
The puppies will go through 2,000 hours of training with multiple handlers. As soon as the vest goes on, they know it's time to work. They're even taught how to respond to human affection! We can kiss them, but they can't kiss us back!
The comfort dogs are so special, they have their own business cards and Facebook pages that keep the connection long after the dogs have helped someone.
All work and no play? Hardly! When the vest comes off, they're like any other canine companion.
When the comfort dogs finish training, they're placed with a church, live with a church member volunteer and work within that community.
What started as four dogs in Northbrook has grown to more than 130 dogs in 25 states.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A COMFORT DOG
I first met comfort dog Jojo, a golden retriever, this past summer while my mother was in rehab after heart surgery. Jojo let us follow her around for a day.
"We started training with Jojo. She was new to our church. She was only about 8 months old when we got her," said Lynne Ryan, a comfort dog handler.
Ryan is one of eight handlers who works regularly with comfort dog Jojo.
"I pick her up, make sure she's got her little back pack and I've got my schedule and what we're going to do and we get in the car and we go wherever we need to go!"
At Lutheran Home Rehab in Arlington Heights, Jojo delivers wag-o-grams. From staff to patients, Jojo is a rock star!
"It's just such a heartwarming experience// when they're in a nursing home they're often lonely, they're in pain, sometimes they're in rehab and it's just a matter of Jojo bringing comfort," said Lynne Ryan, a comfort dog handler.
Comfort dogs are smart and intuitive. They pick up on our stress and know when we need their special touch, however, there's only so much stress they can absorb.
"We try to limit the amount of time a dog is in a particular situation, if it's a stressful situation for the dog, our job as handlers is to keep them safe," said Lynne Ryan, a comfort dog handler.
That's particularly important when the dogs are deployed to disaster areas. One of the first disasters Jojo responded to was the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The comfort dogs were deployed immediately, and Jojo was there to greet the students after they were coming back from school.
Jojo works so well with children, she has become a calming presence for nervous youngsters at the dentist. A dental exam and cleaning is easy for 2-year-old Sydney wtih Jojo along for the ride.
The comfort dogs visit by request, which is easy to do on the Lutheran Church Charities website.