GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Carol Deardorff never trained dogs before she started volunteering with the Lutheran Church Charities Comfort Dog Ministries.
Growing up, she was always around farm dogs, but never worked with a K-9 teaching it commands.
“I didn’t really have experience training dogs. We never even had a dog in our married life,” Deardorff said of herself and husband Richard.
When she heard that a satellite training facility was going to be set up in Grand Island, her interest piqued. After meeting comfort dog Moses that works through Christ Lutheran Church in Cairo, and learning about the ministry, Deardorff signed up to be a volunteer apprentice trainer.
For the past three years, she and her husband have helped get pups ready for their future jobs as comfort animals.
The program uses golden retriever puppies, and a new batch is almost ready to visit Grand Island. Volunteers are needed to help with the approximate year-long training.
Grand Island is one of two locations in the continental United States where 130 Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) comfort dogs have been trained. The other location is in Chicago.
The dogs arrive when they are 8 to 10 weeks old . The organization provides training equipment, veterinary care and food for the animals. When fully trained, the dogs then go to churches where they are used by the ministry as comfort dogs both locally and nationally.
Training takes place one day a week, usually at Peace Lutheran Church in Grand Island. When not at the weekly classes, the dogs take turns living with trainers.
Deardorff has worked with about 10 comfort dogs. She still keeps track of her first dog, Levi, through a Facebook page, which each comfort dog has. She also had an opportunity to visit Levi in Chicago.
“It was neat to see him in his new setting and see how happy he was,” she said.
Comfort dogs go to natural disasters to bring comfort to adults and children. That is one of the most rewarding parts to being a trainer for Shannon Brosz, who has been part of the program with her husband, Adam, for two years.
“It’s so nice to see them do wonderful things. You get them for the first year of their life as a puppy. As they get older that is when you truly get to see how the training can really affect their adult dog life,” Brosz said.
She, too, had no experience training dogs when she became a volunteer. One year while training the dogs, Brosz saw firsthand how the animals bring comfort to others.
Brosz took the dog with her to school where she was a substitute teacher. Without any prompting, the dog went straight to a student whose grandmother recently passed away.
“He knew. Whenever I take the dogs into the school system, the go to the kids who need a little more love,” she said.
Moeller is heading up the effort to get more volunteer trainers. He said the commitment for a trainer is a year to 15 months. Trainers need to be at least 18 years old.
Brosz said one concern people have about becoming a trainer is becoming too attached to the animal, but it helps to go into it with the mindset that the dog isn’t their own pet. Also, it’s good to keep in mind that the dog will be doing good for others when they do depart.
“It’s sad to see them go, but you have to go into it with the mentality that this isn’t your dog and that I’m doing this to help other people and hopefully make someone’s day better,” she said.
Deardorff said being part of the program is about giving others hope.
“You get so much back from it than you give. We’ve met so many wonderful people and feel like we’ve made a difference in people’s lives,” she said.