A teenager who had been playing outside with a neighbor when a tornado hit and took her friend hadn’t spoken a word since. The teen told Jessy the whole story. Jessy is a comfort dog, and she was there to help.

K-9 Comfort Dogs Jessy and Thomas. Photo courtesy Jessalynn Cairer.

Here’s how the comfort dog helped.

She told Jessy the whole story.

Days earlier, a tornado had torn apart a small Arkansas town, and Jessy was there on a mission to provide help to those affected by the storm. One of those in need, a teenager who had been playing outside with a five-year-old neighbor when the sirens began to wail, hadn’t spoken a word about that day since the storm swept through and took her young friend with it. Her mother was worried about the grief her daughter was keeping bottled up.

Then that teenager met Jessy, who listened with rapt attention as the story came tumbling out.

Jessy is a nine-year-old Golden Retriever and part of a highly trained group of Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs. There are 130 dogs currently active in the program throughout the United States, and Jessy is one of seven in Missouri. Thomas, her three-year-old buddy, and fellow comfort dog are both headquartered at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Concordia, Mo.

AFTER THE STORM

The idea for a comfort dog program came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when representatives from Lutheran Church Charities observed the devotion people had for their dogs—to the point that many refused rescue if it meant leaving their beloved pets behind.

The group began to explore the notion of using the human-canine connection to create a new ministry, but first, they wanted to know which dogs were best suited for the job of comfort-giving. They asked veterinarians and other dog experts for recommendations. The answer was nearly universal: Golden Retrievers. The program selected some purebred Goldens from respected breeders and put them through a rigorous training program, and the K-9 Comfort Dogs program was officially launched in August 2008.

Most of the participating churches in Missouri got involved with the program after they saw comfort dogs in action.

“It was the Joplin tornado in 2011,” says Renee Ravanelli, the Top Dog for the St. Paul’s team, whose job it is to coordinate Jessy’s and Thomas’s busy schedules with the team of caregivers and trained handlers at the church. “People from our church went down and saw the dogs at the Lutheran church, Jackson, and Louie. We saw the kids in the school there talking to Jackson and Louie about things they wouldn’t tell anyone but the dogs. The dogs were amazing, how much they were helping the people, so we decided to look into it.”

The congregations at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Washington, Mo., and Timothy Lutheran Church in St. Louis were both inspired by seeing comfort dogs helping families following the tragic 2012 shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.

“My wife, Sue, watched the comfort dogs that went to Sandy Hook after that school shooting,” says Glenn Nielsen, Timothy Lutheran’s Top Dog. “She was convinced that our

Comfort Dog Jessy is a frequent visitor to the classrooms at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Concordia. Student Annika Pottschmidt gives her a hug.
Thomas awaits his next command from Beth Kruse, who has received intensive training to become a K-9 Comfort Dog handler.

Church needed to be doing that kind of compassion ministry to the community.” When Sue called a meeting at the church to gauge interest in the program, more than 25 people showed up, and after a year of fundraising, planning, and training, Comfort Dog Noah arrived in 2014 to take his place with that church.

Lutheran Church Charities doesn’t divulge how much congregations pay for each dog, but the investment is significant and covers the cost of the dog and its two years’ worth of expert training, plus additional training for church volunteers who are designated as handlers.

“We raised the money for Jessy in about four months,” Renee says, “and we got her in 2013.” The program continues to be self-sustaining through directed donations from parishioners and community members.

“The veterinarian supplies services for free,” says Ministry Partner Mary Schlueter. Thomas, she says, has a penchant for eating things he shouldn’t, including entire sticks of butter. Those complimentary vet visits are “an absolute kindness,” she says.

WHO’S A GOOD DOG?
The path that brings dogs into the program begins at puppyhood when the dogs are still in the care of the breeders.

One of Jessy’s handlers, John Jacobsen, describes the first test used to identify potential comfort dogs when they’re only a few weeks old. “They’ll hold them upside down in the palm of their hand, and if they stay still, they could be earmarked as a potential comfort dog. If they wiggle and squirm, like a lot of puppies, they are just put back in with the litter.”

From there, comfort dog candidates head to Chicago for training with a dedicated team. “They work with four or five different trainers so they don’t imprint with one trainer,” John says.

It’s during those two years of training that the dogs learn the commands that are unique to K-9 Comfort Dogs, and before they are placed with a congregation, the church-level volunteers must attend two days of intensive instruction to learn how to work with the dogs. “It’s a surprisingly difficult training to learn their voice commands, hand positions, and how to handle them,” says Jim Mills, another of the handlers for Jessy and Thomas.

“I had to go through a door 18 times because I could not keep my wrist in the proper position,” says Victoria Pottschmidt with a laugh. Victoria and her husband, Michael, who is also a St. Paul’s minister, are caregivers and handlers for Thomas. “It wasn’t the dog,” she clarifies. “The dog is beautifully trained, but they are setting a high standard, especially in the beginning, because the dog needs to have consistency.”

Evelyn Pottschmidt’s parents, Michael and Victoria, are trained K-9 Comfort Dog caregivers and handlers, so Evelyn and Thomas enjoy plenty of playtimes together.

That consistency is important because the dogs move between several caregiving households and as many as eight handlers every few days. Those frequent changes don’t upset the dogs at all. “It takes a special personality for the dog to be good with that,” Mary says. “But these adult dogs are so flexible, and they love so many people.”

Only trained volunteers are allowed to hold a comfort dog’s leash, though. “We signed paperwork about how they’re treated,” Victoria says. “My kids can’t hold the leash, which irritates them to no end.”

But that doesn’t mean the kids can’t play with Thomas when his workday is done. Every comfort dog wears a vest emblazoned with his or her name and the message “Please pet me.” One of the commands the dogs learn is “Dress,” which means they need to come to the handler and sit still as the vest is fastened. When the vest is on, they are calm, obedient, and unfailingly professional. When the vest comes off, they are as silly and playful as any other happy dog, and each reveals his or her own personality.

The elder Jessy is a bit more sedate than the younger, more rambunctious, butter-gobbling Thomas. Comfort Dog Noah is also a big fan of food, but Glenn describes Noah as very polite. “He will only eat after he is given permission to do so.”

Tabby is the comfort dog at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School in Des Peres, Mo. Top Dog Ruth Agne describes Tabby as a “smiley dog” who loves “food, playtime, massages, but mostly people.” And the people love her back. In Ruth’s neighborhood, the dog is lauded as “Mayor Tabby.” Comfort Dog Sheba, who works with Immanuel Lutheran in Washington, Mo., has an unusual food fetish. “She loves carrots for a treat,” says Top Dog Kelly Hardt. “She also loves stuffed toys and will snuggle with them when she isn’t playing with them.”

Zillah, on the other hand, is a ball hog who, according to Top Dog Holly Gillette, loves any ball that another dog has. Zillah works with the congregation at Immanuel Lutheran in St. Charles, Mo., and like so many of her fellow comfort dogs, shows an uncanny capacity for identifying people in need.

A FRIEND INDEED
Every handler has story upon story about times a comfort dog has picked someone out of a crowd who desperately needed to feel the warmth of fur beneath their hand and see the nonjudgmental solace in those deep brown eyes.

John recounts a visit to a high school in Lexington, Mo., following a traffic accident that killed a student. “We went into one classroom and Jessy went right over to one boy,” he said. The boy had his head on this desk and was crying silently. Jessy sat beside him, nudged his hand, and he began petting her. The faculty was amazed at Jessy’s perceptive ability; that student was the twin brother of the girl who was killed. “These dogs know where they need to go,” John says.

Zillah handler Kathy Huster describes another encounter at an event for families who suffered the loss of an infant. “At the Share Walk in St. Charles last October, Zillah and I stepped away for a quick walk and crossed paths with a grieving mom and dad. No words were needed. Just a moment for them to feel Zillah’s calm comfort. It was brief but so impactful to feel useful in a situation where you would otherwise feel useless.”

Debbie Graf is the Top Dog for Team Boaz Comfort Dog at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Lake Ozark, Mo., and her favorite Boaz story is about a chemo patient at a local hospital. “One day she told me that her absolute favorite day of the week was Thursday when she came for chemo because she always got to see Boaz,” Debbie says. “Who can say that their favorite day
is chemo day? That’s a reminder of what these dogs can do.”

Comfort dogs have busy schedules as the complicated, color-coded calendar of Jessy and Thomas can attest. In a given week, they may be assisting school counselors, visiting nursing homes, cheering up first responders, attending to hospice patients, or standing by to bolster courage at the civil court.

Most of their work is close to home, but K-9 Comfort Dogs and their handlers are sometimes asked to travel out of state to help survivors bear up after a tragedy. Tabby and her handlers traveled to Florida following a shooting at a high school. “We had about 20 comfort dogs there,” Ruth says. “We spread out a blanket to welcome anyone who wanted to sit and pet Tabby. Four high school kids sat down. One of the girls started talking about what she saw and experienced in the school. We handlers just stood quietly as tears rolled down our cheeks, knowing Tabby was doing what was needed.”

The comfort dog connection is even more personal for program volunteers Glenn and Sue Nielsen, who found themselves in need of that special kind of solace. “Since the dogs will work together on major events, we get to know the people working with other comfort dog ministries,” Glenn says. “When our son died in 2017, dogs from the St. Louis area; Joplin; Louisville, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Toledo, Ohio; Springfield, Illinois; and Concordia were there for the visitation and funeral. Sue and I, in the midst of our deep grief and pain, experienced the comfort of the dogs, and even more, the support and love of the people who had brought the dogs. During that dark time, that memory is one we treasure.”

Meet Missouri’s Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs

Missouri Lutheran churches currently host seven comfort dogs. Program volunteers are hoping to see that number grow, particularly in the western part of the state. Each comfort dog is assigned a Bible verse and given its own Facebook page.

BOAZ
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Lake Ozark
1 John 4:19
Facebook.com/BoazComfortDog

JESSY
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Concordia
Psalm 28:6
Facebook.com/JessyComfortDog

NOAH
Timothy Lutheran Church, St. Louis
Psalm 29:11
Facebook.com/NoahComfortDog

SHEBA
Immanuel Lutheran Church & School, Washington
Philippians 3:8
Facebook.com/ShebaComfortDog

TABBY
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres
Acts 9:36
Facebook.com/TabbyComfortDog

THOMAS
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Concordia
John 20:28-29
Facebook.com/ThomasComfortDog

ZILLAH
Immanuel Lutheran Church, St. Charles
Psalm 57:1
Facebook.com/ZillahComfortDog

Meet comfort dogs from other states and learn more about the national program by visiting LutheranChurchCharities.org.