GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Sporting his blue service dog vest, Eddie walked alongside one of his handlers at Peace Lutheran Church. Waiting at a line on the floor was Moses, another dog, and Eddie was supposed to walk up calmly and sit to greet him.
But as Eddie approached, he started walking too far ahead, and as he was supposed to, the handler had to pull him back and circle him around to try again.
For Eddie and his handlers at Peace Lutheran, it’s practice for the work they’ll be doing — work that could take them anywhere from the side of a resident at Riverside Lodge in Grand Island to the home of a family who lost everything in a tornado in another state.
Eddie is a comfort dog, and he is part of a new form of ministry at Peace Lutheran.
On a Sunday in June, he officially joined the church with a “passing of the leash” service.
Getting Eddie has been a huge undertaking, said Don Moeller, who will be the dog’s caregiver, but the church community felt the unique service he would provide would be worth it, both in Grand Island and beyond.
“If you have an animal, it opens the door,” Moeller said.
Eddie is only the second comfort dog Lutheran Church Charities has placed in Nebraska. The first, Moses, who is at Christ Lutheran Church in Cairo, was actually the reason Peace Lutheran began looking into getting a dog, Moeller said.
Moses has visited children at Sandy Hook Elementary after the shooting there, a memorial service after the Boston Marathon bombing, people in Arizona after the deaths of 19 firefighters and more.
Church members saw what a difference Moses was making, Moeller said, and the research began.
The K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry itself started after Hurricane Katrina, said Richard Martin, one of the program’s directors. One of the workers with Lutheran Church Charities saw how people weren’t leaving their homes without their pets, and LCC began bringing in boats to take them out together.
They realized how special that bond was, Martin said, and they began working with a golden retriever breeder to get the dogs.
Now, he said, the dogs are trained from the time they are 8 months old, just like a service animal. Eddie is now about 16 months old, he said.
The church has been preparing, too, Moeller said.
They had to raise about $6,000 for the application to get Eddie, and they had to raise another $6,000 for his arrival.
Because he and his wife, Connie, will be the primary caregivers, Moeller also had to attend a special training in Addison, Illinois, where the dogs are trained.
And this week, the handlers have gone through another training.
“It’s not only the dogs training. It’s the people training,” Moeller said.
Each handler was selected after a Skype interview, he said.
They include former teachers, retired police officers and current police officers, Martin said, and their different backgrounds allow them to feel comfortable taking Eddie to any situation.
The three-day experience is important, Martin said, because unlike a service animal, comfort dogs have to learn to respond to commands of multiple handlers.
Because of that, the handlers have to be precise, he said, such as using the command “with me” instead of “heel.”
The handlers learn about everything from how to get the dog to put his head on someone’s knee to how to reward him with play and quality time, Martin said. They also take several field trips, such as to Wal-Mart, to practice real-world situations in a laid-back atmosphere.
In addition to acclimating the dog, he said, it helps the handlers learn their role in spreading hope in tough circumstances.
“The dog is just a conduit that brings people to a safe place,” Martin said.
With the dog as a buffer, Moeller said, the handlers learn to be quiet and simply listen, providing support. Each of the handlers will spend time with the dog every week, and they must work with Eddie three times a day.
That’s something Lisa Thayer, one of the handlers, is eager to do.
Thayer said she is excited to take Eddie on runs, to Riverside Lodge and even to sporting events.
Dogs allow people to relax, she said, and having him gives the church another opportunity to serve at a local and national level.
“I just am a strong believer that dogs bring a lot of comfort, and it is a great way to bring Christ to people in a non-threatening way,” Thayer said.
That service is what makes having Eddie worth it to Peace Lutheran, Moeller said.
“There’s a lot of churches who would want to have a dog,” he said.
“What makes it so special is it’s not for us. It’s for other people, too.”