K-9 Parish Comfort Dog Ministry

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Maybe it’s the soft, soulful eyes.

The inquisitive, wet nose.

Or the vest that declares, “Pet me!”

Whatever it is, people can’t keep their hands off of Fuerst, a two-year old Golden Retriever. Rev. Tim Engel, pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Portage, Indiana, says that’s the whole idea.

“Having the dog opens up conversations with folks that I probably wouldn’t otherwise engage in conversation,” explains Engel, who has Fuerst accompany him throughout most of his ministry day. Once people begin petting the dog, they often share their personal stories and, in turn, open the door for Engel to provide Christian compassion, hope and prayer. The trained service dog becomes the bridge to the ministry – a unique opportunity that Holy Cross and a handful of other churches are starting to embrace, thanks in part to a seed grant from Wheat Ridge Ministries.

As a small congregation of about 100 baptized members, Holy Cross views Fuerst as part of its mission to make a difference in the local community. Engel’s already been invited to bring Fuerst to the public high school to visit with students over their lunch break. Regularly scheduled visits at several local schools are forthcoming. The church also is planning a new outreach ministry this fall: English as a Second Language tutoring for struggling students. Fuerst will be right there in the mix as an attentive listener to students practicing their reading skills.

Fuerst also is helping calm anxieties in crisis settings. Since Engel is the chaplain for the Portage police and fire departments, he often gets called for local emergencies. Fuerst recently joined him at a structure fire, giving three teenagers who’d escaped the building a tangible focal point as they talked with Engel about the experience.

“(A comfort dog) is one of the most effective outreach tools I’ve seen in 30 years of ministry because of the bridge that they bring,” says Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) in the greater Chicago area, which founded the K-9 Parish Comfort Dog Ministry last year. “It’s incredible to watch what happens when people pet a dog and the ministry doors it opens up.”

Hetzner witnessed the effectiveness of comfort dogs firsthand in February 2008 after a gunman on the Northern Illinois University campus in nearby DeKalb, Illinois, killed six people and wounded 18 more. LCC raised money to bring a team of crisis comfort dogs to DeKalb to minister to the university community. “It was a huge success. They were the only faith-based ministry allowed inside the dorms,” says Hetzner. The dogs and their handlers returned a month later at the students’ requests and again recently for one-year memorial services.

After seeing the unique way the comfort dogs connected with grieving people, Hetzner thought they might be of similar service in parish settings. LCC piloted the project with a few dogs and then turned to a Wheat Ridge seed grant to make more dogs available. LCC now has six dogs in ministry, with plans to add six more dogs in coming months. Each dog is placed with a team of two handlers who are taught how to communicate with the dog and minister to those they encounter.

Hetzner says the healing power of animals is widely documented and has a Biblical foundation. “The Good Samaritan could not have fully ministered to the injured man without his donkey. It was the donkey who carried the man to the inn. In Scripture we see animals being used. They are gifts from God that can be used to aid you in the ministry.”

Rev. Ronald Moritz at St. Matthew Lutheran Church and School in Hawthorn Woods, Illinois, agrees. Their dog, Ladel, helps the Lutheran school students cope when they’re having a bad day. “Our staff is quick to let the children come to the office to spend a few minutes hugging and talking with Ladel. It’s remarkable how quickly they return to a calmer demeanor. Most often it’s all they need to continue the school day in a much better frame of mind,” he says.

Thank you for your continued support of Wheat Ridge Ministries. Your prayers and donations help hurting people encounter the healing power of Christ cloaked in the form of a four-footed friend.

Written by Jennifer Halupnik