If you’re feeling anxious or just need a listening ear, you can now book video calls with golden retrievers through LCC.
By Courtney Runn, Photos courtesy of LCC
If you aren’t quarantining with a dog, the next best thing is FaceTiming one and now through Lutheran Church Charities, LCC, you can book a digital appointment with a golden retriever comfort dog.
The nonprofit responds to crisis situations throughout the country and employs up to 130 golden retrievers for its K-9 ministry. The dogs regularly deploy to mass shootings and natural disasters, often seen on the news lined up in their signature blue vests at vigils ready to comfort grievers. When they’re not responding to national crises, the comfort dogs work in their local communities, visiting schools, nursing homes, hospitals, hospice centers, police stations, veteran communities and churches.
With coronavirus forcing the dogs to stay home like everyone else, their handlers are finding creative solutions to still serve. Austin-based goldens Martha and Abner are sending out ‘Thinking of You’ cards with their pictures and making personalized videos. While the Austin dogs are not able to make virtual visits yet, anyone can request a visit with one of the many available dogs at any time of the day or night. Through a form on the LCC website, people can choose a time and date preference and select which golden retriever to talk to with space to indicate if you’re a first responder or health care worker. The dog’s handler will then reach out to confirm a time and video-call platform.
LCC Founder Tim Hetzner says the virtual calls have already been a success and they’ve coordinated late-night calls for health care workers getting off their night shift, parents overwhelmed by juggling work and childcare, and students used to seeing the dogs in person at their schools.
Gabriel, a comfort dog based in Houston, made his first personal virtual visit last week to interview for this article after joining a Zoom classroom call. While he declined to comment, he seemed happy to sit on camera and was only mildly disappointed he had put on his work vest just to travel to the living room. While Gabriel couldn’t discern my voice through the computer, Hetzner says many of their dogs are able to sense movement on screens and still make eye contact.
“The beauty of particularly golden retrievers is they have a sense, they can tell when someone is hurting. They can spot that from across a room. We see this all the time,” Hetzner says. “I used to believe it was because of smell but I believe now it’s because dogs are one of the few animals that can look you in the eye. … When somebody is hurting, they may keep their facial expression to cover their [hurt] but their eyes can’t [lie].”
Hetzner launched LCC in 2008 after helping with people and pet rescues during Hurricane Katrina. His team started bringing golden retrievers with them to volunteer and they noticed how people would open up with the dogs.
“We saw the value of an animal for a person going through a tragedy,” he says.
The ministry never asks for payment, relying on donations to deploy its K-9 units throughout the country. The dogs only deploy on request; after a tragedy, local churches can request a visit and then LCC coordinates with the local government to visit affected communities. Individual Lutheran churches can request a permanent comfort dog and after the dog has gone through about 2,000 training hours it’s able to work in the community. Each dog is owned by LCC or its church but lives with a caretaker and works with up to eight to 10 trained handlers to go out in the community. Austin received its first two dogs, Abner and Martha, in 2017 and 2018, respectively, through Bethany Lutheran. Currently, there are 20 local trained handlers who can make visits with the dogs.
‘Top Dog’ Kelly Shivertaker is the local Austin coordinator and deploys with the dogs when needed. In 2018, she visited Parkland, Florida after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting with Abner and last summer, went to El Paso, Texas with both dogs.
“I can’t say enough nice things about the people of El Paso and my heart still goes out to them,” Shivertaker says. “It was special to be able to be there.”
One month after the El Paso shooting, Shivertaker traveled to Odessa, Texas after its shooting. “The one right after the other was difficult,” she says. After deploying to national tragedies, the dogs take time off to recover; they also receive daily massages to decompress.
“The dogs are kind of like sponges. All of the anxiety and emotion people have goes into the dog,” says Gabriel’s caregiver, Tim Engel.
The handlers also absorb trauma. The Austin team has started working with Austin Police Department’s victim services to learn how to manage “vicarious trauma.” The people she visits remain in Shivertaker’s memory and she says she continues to pray for them. While the handlers don’t stay in touch with the people they serve, all the dogs have their own business cards and social-media profiles, allowing people to follow the golden retrievers after they leave.
“It’s not about the dog; it’s not a dog ministry, it’s a people ministry. It really is about the people that you connect with and the dog allows you to connect with the people,” Shivertaker says. “If you just let somebody pet your dog and walk away, you’ve really missed the opportunity to really be there for them, just to let them know you care, that you love them, that hate is not something that everybody carries.”