GENOA – Customers and visitors to Heartland Bank and Trust Company in Genoa might be surprised by a furry greeter in the lobby.
Charmaine Cornwell, assistant vice president and sales manager of the bank, is socializing a 3-month-old golden retriever puppy named Jewel, part of the pup’s training to be a comfort dog. She goes to work with Cornwell on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Cornwell learned about the comfort dogs program through her church, Immanuel Lutheran Church in Belvidere.
“I’ve always had a love for dogs and one of my girlfriends at church said, ‘Why are you not involved in this ministry?’”
Jewel is the first dog Cornwell has trained through the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog program, which provides golden retrievers to churches. The dogs interact daily with people at places like churches, schools, nursing homes and hospitals. The dogs are also sent to disasters to provide emotional and spiritual support to victims and first responders.
When 19 firefighters were killed June 30 battling a wildfire near Prescott, Ariz., Cornwell went to the scene with her church’s comfort dog, Kye. Other dogs were sent recently to tornado sites in Joplin, Mo. and Moore, Okla., the site of the fertilizer plant explosion near Waco, Texas, Boston after the Boston Marathon bombing, and Newtown, Conn. after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The program was officially established in August 2008, six months after DeKalb pastor Marty Marks invited Tim Hetzner to bring his therapy dog to DeKalb in the wake of the Feb. 14, 2008 shooting on the campus of Northern Illinois University.
“We knew people who were close to the disaster who had therapy dogs,” said Hetzner, now the president of the LCC K-9 Comfort Team. The dogs had been trained for another purpose, he said, but people on campus seemed to cheer up just by being around them. “We started using the term ‘comfort dogs.’”
Shar Farran and her husband, David, of Hampshire are handlers for Adeena, a comfort dog owned by St. John Lutheran Church in Burlington. They took Adeena to Newtown shortly after last year’s shooting and were stunned by the results.
“It’s immediate,” Shar Farran said. “What struck me in Sandy Hook at the one-month anniversary of the tragedy was that wherever we were in Connecticut, I saw nothing but smiles. I didn’t see tears. That was overwhelming. We served at both Sandy Hook Elementary and Newtown High School. Teachers, staff, students – when they were with the dog, they were smiling.”
Dog handlers do not provide counseling or evangelize, but they will pray with a victim if they are asked. Their purpose is to provide comfort and to calm people enough that they can talk to counselors. Children often respond directly to the dogs while a counselor is in the room.
“In any crisis or disaster, the first step of healing is to talk about it,” Hetzner said. “Our handlers are taught to be listeners. In Newtown they brought counselors in, and the dog became a tool for the counselor to use to help with the students and parents.”
After Jewel becomes a certified comfort dog in nine to 12 months, she will be sent to another congregation for her life of service, and Cornwell will receive another puppy to train.
“It’s kind of like sending your oldest off to college,” she said. “It’s bittersweet – you’re going to miss them, but you know they’re off to do better things.”