Darien ‘comfort dog’ brings joy to those in need

DARIEN — There was a boy there named Jonah Gonda, who like the other children in class was quiet and kept to himself. That was until the kids received a visit from a 4-year-old Golden Retriever named Shami.

"The first day Shami came, he (Jonah) spent an hour with her," said his teacher, Kim Rothstein. "After that I was sold."

Shami is a "comfort dog," one of the few that belong to St. John Lutheran Church in Darien that are called upon to help make those who ask for them feel better. When she showed up last week in a classroom for those with autism at Troy Crossroads Elementary in Shorewood, Shami was more than just a dog. She was a friend.

“It’s been amazing,” Rothstein said. “We’ve seen more spontaneous vocalization from the kids to interact with her, we’ve seen more eye contact and we’ve seen kids initiating interaction with her when they don’t typically interact with other peers or adults.”

Shami has been visiting Troy Crossroads for the past four months after Rothstein requested a comfort dog. Requests are made through Lutheran Church Charities, an organization that has purchased and trained dogs since the 2008 Northern Illinois University shootings.

LLC currently has more than 50 dogs in six different states.

“It’s one of those things that until you actually see it and you witness it, you’re not going to get it,” said Toni Bazon-Forsberg, one of Shami’s trainers. “One man said that it was one of those things that you just couldn’t put into words.”

Shami, who lives with Bazon-Forsberg in Darien, has been a comfort dog since she was 10 months old. In the last three years, the response from communities — especially children — has been the most gratifying, she said.

“A lot of the kids when they come in are upset,” Bazon-Forsberg said. “Then they sit down with the dogs and I think the dogs just kind of having a calming influence on them. Some of the kids talk to the dogs, maybe tell them things that they wouldn’t tell other people. They laugh, they smile, they talk about their own pets.”

This was Shami’s first local trip since coming back from Newtown, Conn., where she was one of the dogs comforting those in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

Bazon-Forsberg and her daughter, Jolene, also a trainer, said the joy their visit brought was evident.

"Not just the kids, but the adults, too, and the people in town and community were so thankful to have the dogs here,” Jolene said. “It’s like the flip of a switch almost. It just brings a smile to their faces and makes them very happy to have dogs there.”

Back at home last week, as soon as Shami trotted into the Shorewood classroom, the bright eyes of eight students lit up as they clamored to try to pet her as long as they could. Shami laid there calmly, adoring it without so much as a flinch.

Then, it was time for the dog to have some fun. Their teacher, Rothstein, brought the kids down the hall to an auditorium where each would thrown a ball for Shami to retrieve.

The Shami they saw five minutes earlier, who had lounged out lazily to a sea of massaging hands, was no more. Shami sprinted across the auditorium with as much enthusiasm for the first throw as the last — sometimes even crashing into the wall — and she always brought the ball right back.

“This is like her reward at the end of the day,” Bazon-Forsberg said.

The positive changes in Rothstein’s students since meeting Shami were obvious in just the hour of her latest visit.

Right before Shami left, Jonah was painting, giggling and jumping on the classroom’s mini trampoline.

“It is by far an experience that everyone should get a chance to go through,” Rothstein said. “If we could have a dog in school full-time, I’d do it. I find it really beneficial.”