Comfort Dogs bring compassion to those facing tragedy

HOUSTON – For more than a decade ‘Comfort Dogs’ have quietly brought compassion and grace to some of our country’s worst tragedies. The animals are trained and deployed by Lutheran Church Charities.

“They touch people because they show unconditional love, they’re non-judgmental, they don’t take notes,” said LCC President and CEO, Tim Hetzner.

He said the idea for ‘Comfort Dogs’ was born out of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

“We were invited by FEMA to come in and do search-and-rescue with people and their animals because FEMA couldn’t rescue animals at that time,” said Hetzner. “We found the healing power of an animal with somebody who is in a crisis was very beneficial.”

LCC’s Comfort Dog Ministry began in 2008 with four dogs. Since then, the ministry blossomed to 130 dogs in 26 states. The group only brings in Golden Retrievers and training starts at eight weeks old. Hetzner said it takes two years and 2,000 hours of work to train a comfort dog.

“They’re trained not to bark, not to bite, to be calm,” said Hetzner.

All of the animals are given Biblical names and a Bible verse. Comfort Dogs have been deployed to disasters like Hurricane Harvey as well as mass shootings in El Paso, Sutherland Springs, Parkland, Midland/Odessa and Santa Fe. Hetzner said LCC only deploys Comfort Dogs when invited and never charges for the service.

“The comfort dog ministry is about bringing comfort and relief and mercy to people who are suffering,” said Hetzner.

There are 10 comfort dogs based in Texas, according to the LCC.

“You see people that just feel lost and hurting and just trying to understand what’s happened,” said Stacy Bretting, a comfort dog handler from Katy. “Sometimes people don’t talk at all, they just hug and love on the dogs and just release the emotions and shed tears.”

Bretting works with Damaris, who is named after a Greek woman who converted to Christianity. Bretting and Hetzner said Comfort Dogs aren’t solely used for national tragedies and disasters.

The dogs visit schools, hospitals, hospices or anywhere they are needed, Hetzner said.

KPRC 2 spent time with Bretting and Damaris in December, when the pair helped ease the stress of students facing final exams at Lone Star College’s Fairbanks Center.

“The dog creates a bridge between you and an individual and it allowed a lot of people to just open up about how they were feeling,” said Bretting.

Comfort Dogs also cater to first responders and members of the military. More information about the Comfort Dog Ministry can be found here.