Serving the dogs who serve
The Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort ministry, based in Chicago, consists of 60 dogs in six states. They are trained specifically to be comfort dogs, groomed to be furry counselors and, as public animals, cared for under the watchful eyes of a dedicated veterinarian and educated handlers.
First, the dogs spend eight to nine months in training as certified service animals. “We use that training because in our estimation it’s the highest level for a dog,” says Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities. The ministry uses golden retrievers exclusively. “They’re a smart dog, they’re well-accepted by people and they love people,” he says.
After they’re certified, dogs chosen for the program spend one to two additional months learning to work with multiple handlers and various age groups since they’ll be placed in churches and schools. If they excel in the lengthy training, dogs graduate from the program and are placed. Each dog has two caregivers--a primary and secondary--who are also trained to work with the people they serve.
K-9 Comfort teams have traveled to disaster sites from post-Katrina New Orleans to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo. Hetzner says the team’s recent involvement in Newtown has been difficult. Handlers gather at the end of the day to process their emotions--and also to judge whether the dogs need to decompress as well. “Dogs take up the emotions of the people,” Hetzner says.
The handlers know the dogs’ stress points and give them play breaks before returning to work--which sometimes, as in Newtown, means spending eight or nine hours at a stretch comforting children in need. With these long hours along with the stress of travel, the health and well-being of the dogs is a top priority. “When we go out, we always have our veterinarian or a local veterinarian with us,” Hetzner says.
After witnessing the comfort dogs in action at his own church, Glen Redecker, DVM, owner of Spring Hill Veterinary Clinic in Carpentersville, Ill., accepted the call of resident veterinarian for the team. He and his daughter, Erin Redecker-Goelitz, DVM, care for 12 local comfort dogs. Plus, Redecker establishes a uniform standard of care for K-9 Comfort dogs across the country. When he first met the team, that wasn’t something anyone had thought about.
“Our role is to provide the optimum level of care these dogs deserve,” Redecker says. That means up-to-date vaccinations, year-round flea and tick prevention, and educating the dogs’ handlers on breed-specific health problems. With minimum standards in place, dogs receive appropriate healthcare no matter where they’re placed.
Redecker is vigilant about preventive care--especially before the dogs go into regions that might present canine health dangers. He’s also vigilant about good senior care. “There’s a bunch of these dogs that are getting into senior citizen status,” he says, “and some of the handlers thought they needed to be retired.”
Redecker will hear of no such thing. “Just because a dog starts to have problems doesn’t mean you have to retire him,” he says. Redecker says he’s getting into that senior category himself, and after practicing 43 years he has no intention of retiring. Just as he still has value at his age, he believes the dogs do too. “That’s the way I want these dogs to feel--to go out and work and do the things they need to do,” he says.
“I’m on a mission to keep these dogs in the service sector as long as we can,” Redecker says. He hopes they can have careers of 8 to 12 years, and some of them are well on their way to that. “They can have a long life of ministry.”
Redecker is a fervent believer in what the team does. “It’s unbelievable because the dogs do it all on their own,” he says. “They tend to be laid-back and allow the people to come to them. Their presence breaks down the ice barrier.”
Redecker says he can see the dogs’ gifts when they come to his clinic. “What we see go on between the clientele and these dogs,” he says, “there’s a special bond. We see it. We see it all the time in our own waiting room.”