LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Bethany (Trinity Lutheran – Danville, Illinois)
(Thursday, November 23, 2017 – Commercial News / Mary Wicoff)
DANVILLE — Bethany the golden retriever scampered across the gym, chasing a ball and delighting the children who watched.
Then, handler Sharyn Klepp put a vest onto the 2-year-old dog, and she soon switched into work mode, sitting patiently as the students petted her. She kept one eye on Klepp’s hands, however, knowing that’s where the ball was.
After all, the highly-trained comfort dog is still a ball-loving, squirrel-watching canine at heart.
The dog is owned by Trinity Lutheran Church, and is supported by a separate fund through donations. She lives with Mike and Sharyn Klepp in Oakwood. A team of seven handlers, as well as seven or eight ministry helpers, have been trained to take her out for appearances.
She is dually trained as a comfort dog and as a Kare 9 military ministry dog, and has separate vests for each specialty. As a comfort dog, she brings a calming influence and allows people to open their hearts and receive help for what’s troubling them.
On a recent day, she attended worship service with Danville Lutheran School students at the Trinity Campus. She next went through her paces in the gym and then basked in the “awwwws” as children hugged her.
Mike Klepp said, “People might feel the holy spirit so they’ll be moved to do better with their lives. A lot of people don’t have hope.”
Launched in 2008, the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry is a national program that uses golden retrievers to connect with people in distress. Besides their everyday duties of cheering up nursing home residents, veterans and others, the dogs are dispatched in times of disaster to help victims and first responders.
They were “deployed” after the recent hurricanes and mass shootings across the country.
Golden retrievers are used because of their loving, calm demeanor and they respond well to training.
“They are a bridge,” Trinity Pastor Kent Tibben said. While petting the dog, people often open up and that allows the handler to have a conversation about faith.
Also, studies have shown that petting an animal helps lower blood pressure and calms a person.
“It’s not about the dog,” Sharyn said. “It’s what the dog can do for people, about bringing the word of Jesus to people. It’s about bringing a person to a place where they aren’t at all the time.”
She added that if people ask, the handlers will pray with them.
COMFORT FOR CHILDREN
Bethany has been in Vermilion County about a month, and already she’s made a difference in people’s lives.
One of the more poignant experiences was attending visitation for an 11-year-old boy in Covington, Ind. With permission from the family, Bethany and other comfort dogs (two from St. Louis, one from Chicago and one from Milford) greeted people in the middle school gym.
Children coming to the visitation stopped and petted Bethany first. Some spent half of an hour with her.
“It was really eye-opening to see the effect she had,” Mike said. “Some of them cried a little, but smiled when petting the dog — if only for a while.”
Comfort dogs can sense when people are in distress.
Pastor Tibben was a skeptic at first, saying, “I thought it was silly.”
But, about three years ago, he went to a Lutheran Women’s Missionary League conference in Milford, and met a dog who was showing what comfort dogs could do. At the conference was a woman whose husband had died a bit earlier.
“The dog went directly to this woman and laid his head on her leg. They can sense who’s hurting,” Tibben said. “I was sold.”
Lutheran Church Charities, based in Northbrook, has trained and placed more than 120 dogs in 23 states. Our Savior Lutheran Church in Milford has a golden, Mahlah.
Bethany, who’s almost 2, has been in training since she was 10 weeks old, and will receive refresher sessions.
Mike Klepp, who served 22 years in the Air Force, offered to house her. He’s had dogs in the past, but none this large. The rules are strict — no spoiling — and she eats a special food.
When her vest (which says, “Please pet me”) is on, she knows that she’s on duty. When it’s off, she enjoys playing and becomes “more of a dog,” Klepp said.
The church is throwing her a birthday party on Dec. 17 (her birthday is Dec. 22).
Bethany goes only where she’s invited. A church team decides where she should go, such as: the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System, nursing homes, Lutheran schools, and she’ll go to public schools if invited.
She has been to a benefit for a cancer patient, a dinner for veterans at the school and a Thanksgiving dinner at Cannon Place at the VA. When mingling with veterans, she wears her camouflage vest. She also attends Sunday church services and sometimes Wednesday night services.
She’s a working dog, but not a service dog (which is highly trained for a specific individual) and she’s not a therapy dog. Like those dogs, however, she’s been trained to tolerate loud noises and crowds.
Donations through the church cover her food, travel and expenses. Dr. Curt Girouard with Stateline Hillcrest Animal Hospital has offered to provide free veterinary care for a year, and Barb Abbott with Classy Critters provides free grooming, when needed, for life.
•To book Bethany at no cost, call Trinity Church at 446-4300 or email her directly at email@example.com
• Bethany has her own Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BethanyComfortDog/.
• Learn more about the program at http://k9comfort.org.
• Trinity Church also will accept donations for Bethany’s care.