Going to the Dogs?

I’m not a dog person. Due to family allergies, we never owned a dog, much to my sons’ disappointment and my relief. But now my church owns a dog. Last November, in a “passing of the leash” ceremony, we received Susie, a beautiful Golden Retriever, as our own Comfort Dog from Lutheran Church Charities. I’ve not only come to enjoy Susie, I’ve concluded we ought to treat all our church volunteers more like Susie. Let me explain.

Susie’s ministry is to show up and let people pet and hug her. People who are hurting are particularly drawn to Susie. She is patient and friendly, warm and soft. She doesn’t judge or give advice.

Susie is always doing her job. She’s often in our lobby after worship services. She regularly visits our day school – greeting children as they come to chapel, visiting classrooms, listening to kids read, often showing up when a child needs help calming down. She frequents the church office and attends many of our events.

Not every dog can be a Comfort Dog.

She works as much if not more beyond our building. She visited local paramedics who had worked a gruesome homicide scene. The day after her ‘leash’ ceremony, she left to comfort tornado victims in Washington, Illinois. In Colorado, she comforted flood victims. In Oklahoma, it was the firefighter families who lost loved ones. Susie worked two “Make-A-Wish” events, including greeting kids at O’Hare airport who were treated to a plane ride. Check out her Facebook page!

As our staff volunteerism/equipping champion, I love Susie’s ministry. I’m impressed at how many people want be caregivers or handlers. It’s wonderful how she opens doors for ministry in our community. I’m also impressed with the Comfort Dog ministry as a whole.

Not every dog can be a Comfort Dog. Golden Retrievers are especially suitable, but each dog is unique. Selection begins shortly after birth, when a trainer holds the tiny puppy in their palm. Only if the puppy is sufficiently calm will it be put into Comfort Dog training.

Training is rigorous. The dog must follow commands; they must be sociable. When wearing their vest, they may not bark or lick people or put their paws on them. Any of these dogs would make wonderful pets, but only the best graduate training as Comfort Dogs. And graduates have ongoing training sessions throughout their ministry.

Expectations are high and life revolves around their work. They are fed only at given times; they must ‘do their duty’ on command. There are long days when they’re surrounded by crowds and hugged and squeezed by little kids; there are also long periods of waiting and doing nothing.

Each dog works with a team. In addition to the caregiver with whom they live, they have 1 or 2 backup caregivers, as well as 3 or 4 handlers. When working, the dog is always leashed and following the handler’s commands. In turn, the handler protects the dog from overly zealous children, from getting stepped on, and other occupational hazards.

The work requires focus. In a training exercise that must be a riot to watch, a dog must sit calmly at the handler’s side while other people – and dogs! – noisily run around the room.

Despite all this, dogs love the work, according to their handlers. And it’s true. Susie will lean against your leg, or put her nose into your hand, as if requesting a hug. Her handlers say she often moves toward one particular person in a group, who then turns out to be the one most in need of a friendly presence.

It’s all about people, a ministry of presence.

But it’s not all work. There’s also fun and games, care and affection. When the vests come off, the dogs run and play and jump like any dog. Even with vests on, the caregivers and handlers regularly give Susie pats and hugs with words of love and praise. The handlers also pay close attention; when Susie seems tired or strained, they give her breaks from her work.

Not just anyone can be a Comfort Dog caregiver or handler. These are working dogs, not pets. Handlers commit to in-depth training, initially and ongoing trainings. They agree to follow the rules and use uniform commands, so that any dog and any handler can work together. Many handlers are ready to go anywhere in the country with the dog, on short notice, on the next disaster.

The ministry is all about people, a ministry of presence, with an eye for those who are hurting. Handlers are taught they don’t have to worry about saying the right words. They simply show up and listen.

It’s all very interesting and inspiring. But what does it have to do with the rest of our volunteers and the ministries in which they serve?

    • Start with the gifts. Do we continually check that volunteers have gifts suitable for the ministry they serve in?
    • Does every ministry provide initial and ongoing training that prepares volunteers for their task and for what they will encounter?
    • Do we have high expectations for volunteers? Or do we settle for so-so?
    • Does each ministry have focus? Do we have goals and does each volunteer understand them?

Maybe we should be more like the dogs.

  • Do our volunteers love their work? Are they eager to serve, and energized by their service?
  • Do we look for ways to include some fun? Do we share care and affection with each other?
  • What about those who are ‘handlers’ of volunteers – our leaders? Do we carefully select and train them? Are there expectations, standards for our leaders? Are there commonalities in mission and language across all our ministries?
  • Are we all about people? Or is our focus solely on tasks? No matter what the task, are we building relationships?

We can all grow. Maybe it will help us grow if we try to be more like the dogs!

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