PORTAGE | Isaiah and three of his fellow golden retrievers relaxed in the grass at Holy Cross Lutheran church at a "Tail-Gate Party" introducing him to the community Sunday afternoon.
Isaiah is the church’s newest canine in the Comfort Dog program, which Lutheran Church Charities, of Matteson, Ill., began in 2009.
Comfort dogs share the church’s ministries of compassion and community outreach, Holy Cross Pastor Tim Engel said.
“These dogs allow our church, which has a small congregation, to have an impact on a lot of lives here in the community. ... It allows our church to care for more people.”
The church’s first comfort dog, Fuerst, began serving residents in 2009. Parishioners Dan and Karen Fulkerson cared for Fuerst, who visited nursing homes and schools and assisted Engel in his role as the Portage police and fire department chaplain.
Two months later, the church obtained Prince, Fuerst’s father. Prince was “deployed” to Portage High School, with Tim Kunstek, a counselor at the school.
When Fuerst died in 2010, Holy Cross sponsored another comfort dog, Barnabas, who resides with the Fulkersons and fulfills his ministry with them and Engel.
In May, 9-year-old Prince was semi-retired, and a new, younger comfort dog was needed.
Isaiah, an 11-month old retriever, came to Portage in August and will work at the high school with Barnabas.
The dogs play a role in grief counseling when needed, as in the case of a student’s or teacher’s death.
“There can be long, emotional days when significant events come up,” Kunstek said. “It’s almost like they share some of the grief. ... When kids are on the ground with them, crying and petting them.”
The decision to rotate the dogs at the school was deliberate.
“We don’t want it to overwhelm them,” Fulkerson said.
Fulkerson said the dogs’ shouldering of grief is palpable when they come home and their comfort dog vests come off.
“They’ll go out in the backyard and run all that energy off that they’ve absorbed,” Fulkerson said. “You take their vest off and they’re regular dogs. ... They understand that they are working with their vests on.”
Ella Lucas, 9, sat in the grass and petted the retrievers at the party.
“I’m excited they’re here” Ella said.
At a 10 a.m. service at the church, Isaiah was officially placed in the community through a passing of the leash ceremony.
Jodie Brasseur, 9, summed up what the program strives to achieve.
“Most people, when they see dogs, they’re happy because dogs make them happy.”