ADDISON – When Lutheran Church Charities of Addison responded to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, Tim Hetzner remembers images of people stranded on their rooftops clutching their pet dogs.
“FEMA was rescuing people, but not their pets,” said Hetzner, president of the nonprofit ministry.
Hetzner said that experience illustrated how important animals are to people in disaster. He began looking for dogs to help with the ministry’s disaster response work, and when a pastor invited LCC to visit Northern Illinois University after the 2008 lecture hall shooting, the ministry brought its very own K-9 Comfort Dogs.
“It’s one of the most effective ways to help people,” Hetzner said.
Most recently, the pack visited Colorado from Sept. 23 to 29 to comfort members of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ft. Collins and Messiah Lutheran Church and School in Longmont after the devastating floods.
“We went out into the community because this disaster was widely spread out,” said Dona Martin, who co-directs the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry with her husband Rich.
Because so many of the families LCC went to serve were left homeless after the floods, the team needed to travel to shelters or wherever people found to gather for food.
“A lot of them were just living in their cars,” Dona Martin said.
During their week-long visit, the comfort dog team met with students, whose schools were closed due to damage, and their families. The scene reminded Hetzner of another visit the ministry made to Newtown, Conn. after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The comfort dogs have been all over the country and Hetzner said the ministry is looking into sending dogs to other countries when needed, but some logistics would need to be addressed. LCC, however, works internationally to assist with disaster response. The ministry continues to send crews of people to Haiti.
That doesn’t mean the comfort dogs spend their days romping around the LCC headquarters in Addison in between disasters.
“Our day to day outings into the community is where most of our work is done,” Dona Martin said.
The canines fill their days visiting nursing homes, hospitals and reading groups in the local area. They also work with veterans and people with autism. Their training benefits more than just those people who experience trauma.
The K-9 Comfort Team that visited Colorado included five dogs who were screened at 5 weeks old and were trained from when they were 8 weeks old to about a year old before they successfully joined the team.
“Not all of our dogs make it all of the way through the training,” Hetzner said.
Today LCC has 70 dogs in eight states, all golden retrievers who have gone through the 10-month training process that socializes them with all people or all age groups. Dona Martin said the breed’s calm and friendly temperament works well with disaster response work.
“A big part of processing is talking about what you’ve gone through.” Hetzner said.
He explained that dogs are the perfect listeners because they don’t talk or take notes. They’re completely confidential. Many times, Hetzner, said people will start petting a dog and then start talking to it before ever speaking with the humans on his team.
“Our handlers are trained really not to talk,” Hetzner said.
Even with all the training and hardwork that both the people and dogs of LCC go through, the project relies on the same seemingly universal notion Hetzner witnessed while working in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“People love the dogs,” Hetzner said.