A Word With Tim Hetzner - Health Week

Comfort Dogs pay a visit to Sandy Hook Elementary. Photo courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities.

Much to the chagrin of cat lovers, a dog is, as the saying goes, a man’s best friend. At no other time  might this old saying ring with greater truth than in times of tragedy. In the wake of the recent massacre in Newtown, Conn., Lutheran Church Charities made national headlines by visiting victims with their squad of Comfort Dogs – a gang of golden retrievers trained especially to help those in need cope with grief and loss.

On today’s episode of Third Eye Weekly, Co-host Matthew DeMello talks with Lutheran Church Charities President Tim Hetzner about the longer history of the Comfort Dogs program, and why their canine comforters shouldn’t be confused with Therapy Dogs. Here’s a brief segment from that interview.

BreakThru Radio: Can you tell us a little bit more about this program, when it began, and what brought on the idea of Comfort Dogs?

Tim Hetzner: Well, we officially started the Comfort Dog Ministry program August of 2008. [At] Lutheran Church Charities, one of the things we do is disaster response work so we were down at Katrina and every major disaster that’s been in the United States and also outside of the States. And one of the things that we found, we saw it right away in Katrina, is that people have put a bond with their pets, in fact even with Katrina they were rescuing people but would not rescue their pets. So we did search and rescue of people and their pets. We also had observed the power of, particularly dogs, in helping and serving people and helping people relax — they have to process whatever tragedy or crisis that they have gone through. And so in August, 2008, we started with four dogs, our Comfort Dog ministry where we place dogs in churches and schools to be an active part of the community and reaching out to share mercy and compassion with folks that need that and it has grown rapidly. Right now, presently we have sixty dogs in six states and soon to be eight states.

BTR: Were there dogs right in Connecticut for the Sandy Hook victims?

TH: No, the six states that we had, Connecticut was not one of those states, although we had some dogs that were out a month earlier when super storm Sandy hit we had dogs in New York City and also New Jersey. But we had no permanent dogs that were placed in the Connecticut area at that point.

BTR: What other incidents have warranted the presence of the dogs? Was there one single incident that caused somebody to think of golden retrievers and the possible therapeutic value they could bring to those in need?

TH: Well we have responded since August of 2008 and any time after that we have brought out our golden retrievers, which is the breed that we use out into disaster response situations. For example, in Joplin, Illinois we had always present two dogs for at least six weeks and finally, the church and school there decided that they wanted their own two dogs so we placed two dogs there, Jackson and Lloyd, and they are still working there through that church and school in Joplin. So we just saw the value of that, not just in disasters though. They’re wonderful in disaster or crisis situations, but they’re also wonderful on a day-to-day basis out in the community and nursing homes and hospitals and tragedies that can occur in a public school or Christian school, funerals and just being out with people. When a person pets a dog, their blood pressure goes down and dogs make them feel safe because dogs are trained at five and a half weeks. We start training them, and we train them as service dogs and certify them as service dogs, although we don’t use them as service dogs because service dogs are used with people with disabilities.

We train them that way because that gives us the highest level of training for the dog and then we spend an extra, usually six to eight weeks refining that training because all of our dogs have multiple handlers, which is generally not the case with a service dog. So they have multiple handlers and go out and we train the handlers and the caregivers that take care of the dog at night and then help them in establishing places for them to go out into the community. But when a person pets a dog they feel safe and dogs demonstrate unconditional love and they’re great listeners and they’re like furry counselors, they’re confidential and they don’t take notes so they’re safe to talk to. And that’s what happens in most of the cases, people particularly in a trauma situation, they will talk to the dog before they talk to a person.

BTR: I’m a dog person myself, but I was about to ask, why not cats? I’ve been forced to live with a cat for over a year but that just speaks for itself.

TH: To some people cats are good, but they’re kind of hard to put them on a leash and get them to do what you want. Where dogs are a little bit easier to do that with, but people get comfort from different kinds of animals — many horses and others can do that. But the dogs seem to be the best breed that we have found in working with people, we use golden retrievers because they are a smart dog and they can work both inside and outside, and they are one of the most accepting dogs temperamentally and as far as people accepting them. If you had a pit bull, although there are people that love their pit bull and say they get great comfort from that, I don’t doubt that at all, but initially it could be rather threatening to somebody to have that, so we use all golden retrievers.

BTR: I should say this for all my veterinary friends who listen to the show, it is a wide misconception that pit bulls are all mean and are mean by nature,  that is a widely misconstrued piece of information. They’re sweet dogs, but how can someone in need find a Comfort Dog?

TH: Well on our website, we have a list of all of where our Comfort Dogs are. For Nebraska to Missouri and Illinois and Michigan … you just go to our Lutheran Church Charity website or Caninecomfort.org which is the dog site of that. All of our dogs have business cards and all of our dogs have Facebook, email and twitter accounts. So that’s another way to follow the dogs and to communicate with them and request a visit with dogs if that’s needed.