The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 29, 2011

Rich Brown: 4-legged friends bring relief

Comfort dogs help fill void for church, school after tornado

By Rich Brown

JOPLIN, Mo. — A Joplin church and its school are giving new meaning to the phrase “Man’s best friend.”

In light of the havoc wreaked by the Joplin tornado on May 22, and as a way to minister to people in many other areas, Immanuel Lutheran Church and Martin Luther School, 2616 Connecticut Ave., have added two new staff members.

Jackson and Louie, a pair of 14-month-old golden retrievers, have come to the church and school courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities. The Addison, Ill., charity is a nonprofit ministry which partners with churches to make a difference in people’s lives.

The idea of comfort dogs, like Jackson and Louie, was introduced to the Joplin church and school shortly after the tornado touched down. The impact other comfort canines had at that time paved the way for Jackson and Louie, who arrived on a permanent basis at Immanuel on July 10.

“My first experience with the dogs came a week after the tornado when I found out they were coming from Lutheran Church Charities,” said Jeremy Schamber, principal at Martin Luther. “I first thought well, now that is cute but when I saw the reason why they were here and how effective they were, I thought we have to have them.”

The unique dog ministry was started by LCC three years ago based on its experiences responding to Hurricane Katrina.

“They found that the specifically trained comfort dogs were extremely helpful,” said Gregory Mech, Immanuel Lutheran pastor who also served at Las Vegas and Chicago before coming to Joplin. “Your blood pressure and pulse rate go down when you pet a dog. I found through my experience as a pastor in Chicago that if there was a pet present, the people who would not open up at all would start talking. These dogs are extremely good at getting people to open up.

“When you take the dogs out, that can lead to all sorts of things like evangelism to finding out what the needs of the community are.”

Mech said if it had not been for the tornado, the church and school might have not found out about the dogs.

“As far as tornado victims, the dogs have provided a very calming effect and have taken people’s minds out of that fixed stare, that mode that so many were in, especially that first couple of weeks,” he said. “The dogs were the thing that didn’t look like devastation. For some people they were a reminder of pets they had lost, and that was very difficult for them, but for most the dogs simply allowed people to go to a different place emotionally.”

Immanuel Lutheran and Martin Luther followed the same procedures as all churches and schools seeking comfort dogs. Securing church support, school and church officials put together ministry and financial plans, found individuals willing to be caretakers and handlers and lined up a veterinarian and groomer.

“When you take on the dog, it remains the property of Lutheran Church Charities,” Mech said. “Each time you get a dog you pay for the training of the next one.”

The dogs undergo eight to nine months of training beginning at three months of age and since Illinois doesn’t want to pay for their training, the state requires that anyone wanting a trained dog must put up the money to train the next one because they want this to be an ongoing service. Comfort dogs are fully trained service dogs registered with the American Kennel Club, he said.

“For instance, our dogs can unlock doors and carry keys in their mouths, which most dogs won’t do,” said Mech, who grew up in Milwaukee and taught at the university level in Nebraska. “They can turn on a light and help a person dress or undress. They are trained to be able to open zippers but they are not good with buttons.”

Jason Glaskey, youth and family minister at Immanuel, is the person responsible for Louie, just as Schamber is for Jackson, who will be used primarily for school purposes.

“I am a dog person and have a golden retriever at home,” Glaskey said. “I am naturally drawn to them. However, I am not a trainer but just a handler so I am learning as I go.”

When school starts Aug. 17, Schamber said Jackson will become a permanent fixture there.

“He will come to work with me and he will go from classroom to classroom and hang out in my office,” he said. “Jackson is not only for school but, also, for an outreach ministry to the community.”

Schamber, whose wife, Kelli, is a pre-school teacher and also a handler, estimates that about 20 handlers from their church will help guide Louie and Jackson through their ministries.

“There is an endless ministry that we can do with these dogs but we have to start small and build because they are dogs,” he said. “I call them our little disciples.”

Schamber added that God uses animals in the Bible in a variety of ways.

“The dove is seen as a sign of the Holy Spirit and when Jesus was born there were animals there,” he said. “Not only that, but Jesus rode in on a donkey on Palm Sunday, so the Bible does not leave out animals at all. We love animals because God made them but I never thought about taking care of God’s creation as a way of saying wait a minute I am supposed to use God’s creation as a way of ministering.”