By Emily Younker and Scott Meeker
Any question that Louie was bred to put people as ease is put to rest when the golden retriever trots over to where a visitor sits and puts his head on their knee, the dog’s eyes filled with a gentle affection.
In terms of an ice-breaker moment, it’s a winner.
Louie is one of two therapy dogs that has been used since the tornado by Immanuel Lutheran Church.
“After the tornado, our church had a relief center going and we supplied a lot of needs such as medical care, counseling, clothing, food and supplies,” said Jason Glaskey, one of the handlers for the church’s dogs.
“One of the things that happened soon after is that we got a call from Lutheran Church Charities in Addison, Ill. One of their ministries they have to help and serve people is through comfort dogs. They brought them to our gym and we noticed how effective they were in breaking down the barriers of communication, helping people to smile even though they had just gone through something horrific.”
The dogs are bred from an early age to put people at ease, allowing them to be comforted and maybe work out some of their feelings during a trying situation.
By the end of the summer of 2011, staff members at Immanuel were convinced that the two dogs, Louie and Jackson, needed to stay in Joplin.
Glaskey — the church’s youth and family minister — was among the initial church members who trained to become certified handlers for the two dogs, who are credentialed to go into hospitals, stores or anywhere else service dogs are allowed.
“I’ve always been a dog person, but dog handling and using dogs for ministry was a brand new concept for me,” Glaskey said. “But they come into work each day and we put on their working vests. It’s their job to be welcoming, comforting and put people at ease.”
Trained since they were 8 weeks old, the dogs have their own personalities. Jackson is the “hider” and Louie is the “sniffer,” said Glaskey.
The two golden retrievers have made visits all around Joplin over the past two years, from hospitals and nursing homes to schools and even the mall. In January, church members took Louie and Jackson and made a trip to Newtown, Conn., to help bring comfort to the community still reeling from the December school shooting.
Sandy King, an Immanuel member who survived the Joplin tornado, also made the journey to Connecticut and was amazed at how the dogs interacted with people.
“It was an affirmation of what we’ve seen in our own congregation,” she said. “A peace and stillness would come over them and for a while they could forget everything ... all of the horrors and all of the pain. It’s unique and very rewarding.”
Glaskey said the church plans to make Louie and Jackson a permanent part of the church’s ministry.
“Our goals are to use the dogs here in our ministry as our people continue to recover and go through the healing process,” he said. “In another way, our vision is to use them to pay forward the grace and love that has been shared with us.”