Comfort dogs help communities dealing with tragedy

HOUSTON – After the Santa Fe High School shooting, dozens of people found comfort in two unassuming helpers, two super friendly, super cuddly K-9's who are spending their lives to serve those in need.

Gabriel, 2, and 20-month-old Joy are two golden retrievers who have trained since they were 8-weeks-old to help people going through hardship or stress feel at ease.

"I don't know that [the dogs], on a conscious level, realize the impact that they make, but just by being who they are, by sharing their love and their affection, they make a huge impact on people," said the Rev. Tim Engel, pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church and caregiver for Gabriel.

Gabriel came into the Messiah Lutheran Church family about eight months ago, after church members petitioned for a comfort dog from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry. The ministry has more than 130 dogs nationwide in more than 20 states. Each dog is specially selected based on demeanor and trained in the Chicagoland area until they are ready to be assigned to churches nationwide.

"It's a process that takes about two years," said Janet Cook, Gabriel's "Top Dog" team lead.

Cook handles Gabriel's schedule.

"As soon as he hit the ground, (Gabriel) went to Sutherland Springs for that shooting, then he went to Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe," Cook said. "He worked almost a full week during Santa Fe."

Gabriel was not alone. Joy was training in Santa Fe, as part of her training, she was with Gabriel at all the vigils, services and events after the shootings. Joy would eventually be stationed at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, about 11 miles from Santa Fe, the closest affiliate church to the area. Joy will be serving the Santa Fe area from now on.

"When I stop, Joy must automatically stop," said Charles Arvey, one of Joy's handlers. "I trained for three days in Northbrook ... just north of Chicago, to be able to handle Joy ... They all know 35 commands."

Joy and Gabriel stop, move back, sit, walk, eat and even use the bathroom on command when wearing their service vest. The dogs are not allowed to bark, bite, or jump, as a safety precaution for all the petting they receive as part of their job.

"They are trained to be easy going dogs because they have offer compassion," Arvey said. "When you take off the vests, they are regular dogs, they jump, play and everything."

"Probably one of the most moving experiences was where we met one of the families where their son had been wounded," Engel said.

During Santa Fe, Gabriel comforted even victims, visiting Colby Rosenboom, a student who survived being shot in the hip while trying to help a fellow classmate.

"When you think about what they offer, they are the closest proximity to the love of God," Engel said. "This is unconditional love, non-judgmental love."

Any handler, Top Dog caregiver or team member with the dogs, will tell you that their job is to listen. They said the dogs are comforting and open doors for those who are struggling to cope.

"As an adult, just walking in there and trying to talk to children and let them talk to you -- it's very difficult to do," Cook said. "This guy [Gabriel] is the bridge. He opens the door for us."

By this time next year, the team is hoping to have four comfort dogs in the Greater Houston area. The dogs will serve as long as they are physically able.