THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (RNS) — Early on the morning of Nov. 8, Bonnie Fear awoke at her home in Colorado to a two-word text message from Rich Martin, director of K-9 Ministries for Lutheran Church Charities in Chicago.
Something terrible had happened, and Fear knew she was about to be deployed to wherever it was.
In no time, Fear was on a plane headed to Los Angeles, along with Cubby, the 4-year-old golden retriever she handles for the Lutheran Comfort Dog Ministry, and their ministry partner Carol Salander. Hours earlier, a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in suburban Thousand Oaks had claimed the lives of a dozen people, including students from California Lutheran and Pepperdine universities.
Cubby and her handlers are part of the Lutheran Comfort Dog Ministry run by Lutheran Church Charities of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
The ministry has more than 130 specially trained golden retrievers in 20 states, most of them owned and cared for by individual Lutheran congregations. Cubby’s home congregation is Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Colo.
“Our mission is to bring the mercy, compassion, presence and a bold proclamation of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering,” said Martin, who has been part of the comfort dog ministry since its inception shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “When we leave the house, God’s sending us, he’s deploying us.”
When Lutheran Church Charities disaster teams responded to the devastation along the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi 13 years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked them to help rescue people stranded by floodwaters who wouldn’t leave their homes without their pets.
“We started to see that canine-human bond at that time, and over the next few years we also started to see some other people who had their own dogs that were working with people in times of stress and grief,” Martin said.
After a mass shooting killed five students and injured 21 others at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb on Valentine’s Day 2008, a campus minister asked Martin whether he could find a few therapy dogs to bring to the school for a few hours to comfort students.
That was the birth of the Lutheran Comfort Dog Ministry. It started with four golden retrievers, the first of which was placed with a congregation in Hawthorne Woods, Ill.
Beginning when they’re 8 weeks old, the comfort dogs undergo 2,000 hours of training before they’re deployed in a crisis, whether it’s a natural disaster or a human-made calamity such as a mass shooting.
In recent years, the dogs and their handlers have been deployed to a series of disasters, including hurricanes Sandy and Harvey, the deadly tornado in Joplin, Mo., the Boston Marathon bombing and the Parkland, Sandy Hook and Las Vegas mass shootings.
When they’re not deployed to disasters, the comfort dogs work daily with people of all ages in various settings from convalescent homes and veterans' hospitals to juvenile courthouses and schools. Increasingly, they are called upon to provide solace to students and teachers after a child completes suicide, Martin said.
By late afternoon on Nov. 8, Cubby, six other golden retrievers and a dozen handlers from Illinois, Nevada and Northern California had arrived at the university chapel in Thousand Oaks for the standing-room-only vigil.
The K9 ministry team decamped in the narthex with the dogs — Cubby, Hannah, Lois, Emma, Jacob, Ruthie and Aaron — and invited grieving, shellshocked students and others to interact with the canine ministers.
“There was this girl that came out — she had her arm in a sling. I said, ‘Come here; would you like to pet the dog?’ and she said, ‘Yes,’ so we cleared a path and she sat in the chair and we brought Cubby right up to her,” Fear recalled. Cubby did her signature move — putting her head down and leaning into the girl’s body. Fear calls it her “golden hug.”
Salander and Fear prayed silently for the girl, who told them her name was Taylor, while she petted Cubby. After a few minutes, Fear told Taylor that Cubby is good at keeping secrets in case she had anything she wanted to get off her chest.
Taylor told Cubby she had been at the Borderline on the night of the shooting and didn’t think she was going to get out.
She got out.
"But my friend didn't," Fear recalls Taylor saying.
Taylor’s friend was Justin Meek, a 22-year-old graduate of Cal Lutheran who died trying to save others from the shooter inside the country-western bar. Fear and others from the comfort dog ministry prayed with the girl and cried with her, too. All the while, Cubby sat at her feet, a constant force of calm and comfort.
“You could see it was a release for her,” Fear said. “You see that little glimmer of hope in their eyes. You see the hurt and then it changes to hope and a smile. It’s that easy. It’s just that presence. We show up.”
The morning after the Lutheran Comfort Dogs team arrived in Thousand Oaks to respond to the mass shooting, massive wildfires broke out in the Simi and San Fernando valleys adjacent to Cal Lutheran and Pepperdine in nearby Malibu, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.
The ministry team extended its stay to attend to the needs of fire victims and first responders. Many of them not only had attended the scene of the shootings at Borderline but also had to evacuate from their homes because of the massive fires.
Some even had lost their homes to the very fires they were battling.
The K-9 team brought the golden retrievers to comfort fire victims at evacuation shelters, including a youth center in Thousand Oaks that, days earlier, had served as a reunification center where families of the Borderline victims had waited to learn whether their loved ones had survived the shootings.
“It’s so important when you’re involved in this kind of disaster to have a means to (find) comfort,” said Cindy Huge, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross who was on the scene in Thousand Oaks earlier this week. “A resident who’s been affected by the fire, they don’t really want to talk the first couple of days. But if you bring a comfort dog in, they’ll sit down, hug the dog, and maybe they’ll start talking.”
Barb Granado of Arlington Heights, Ill., agreed. She brought comfort dog Hannah to Thousand Oaks.
“We’re there for whatever and whoever God puts in front of us, and then he gives us the tools and the wisdom,” she said. “We’re not there to preach — we’re there to listen, and if they would like prayer, we’re happy to do that. Quite often people just want to pet the dog, and then they open up.”
Most of the comfort dogs are named after characters from the Bible, and each has a passage of Scripture that is its life verse. Cubby (who also is specially trained to work in the Lutherans’ Kare 9 Military Ministry) was named after a veteran. Her verse is Deuteronomy 31:8, which says, “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged."
After five days in southern California, the comfort dogs and their handlers headed home to await their next call.
Aaron, one of the comfort dogs who is based at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Napa, Calif., was already on his way to his next deployment: the enormous “Camp Fire” in Northern California’s Butte County, where wildfire has decimated the town of Paradise, claiming the lives of at least 59 people as of midday Thursday (Nov. 15).
“People say, ‘You’ve come all this way just for us? Why?’ That’s the most consistent comment I’ve heard,” said Fear, who has been on seven deployments in two years — her first was to Orlando, Fla., after the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.
“Why? Because we love you and we care about what happened. Jesus loves you, and we’re here.”