There’s something about hugging a golden retriever. The experience can border on the spiritual.
Two Janesville residents witnessed the effect firsthand in Surfside, Florida, this month when they and a dog named Mary comforted people in pain over the collapse of a high-rise condominium that killed 98.
Tom and Dianne Moore are among 11 handlers from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church trained to take Mary to places of tragedy through a national program run by Lutheran Church Charities.
Since the program began locally in 2018, Mary has comforted people at the site of a child’s drowning on the Rock River, a mass shooting near Carthage College, the recent unexpected death of a Delavan-Darien High School student, the Molson-Coors shooting in Milwaukee in February and the massive chemical plant fire in Rockton, Illinois, not to mention at funerals, nursing homes, schools and the Rock County Jail.
“Lutheran Church Charities uses only ‘goldens’ because they love people, they’re very smart, and people like to approach them,” said Cheryl Skelly, who oversees the program at St. Paul’s. “They’re a people dog. They just want to be with people.”
The dog teams only go where they are invited, Skelly said. The invitation to Surfside came from a Lutheran pastor in nearby North Miami.
The dog handlers bring with them a wooden heart containing a Bible verse mounted on a white cross. For Surfside, the cross became a post, so as not to offend people of different faiths or no faith.
The verse on the heart was from Psalms 34:18: “The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
Volunteers made heart posts for every person who died in the collapse—all 98 of them. Lutheran Charities in Northbrook, Illinois, prepared 160 heart posts, just in case. Each victim’s name was written on a heart. The bereaved wrote messages on them.
Tom is a retired teacher, Dianne a retired personal banker. They drove to Surfside, arriving July 5.
They and Mary greeted the rescue workers each day as they ended their 12-hour shifts. They comforted anyone in the area, including traffic-control officers, who were under a lot of stress.
The din of traffic was constant at the site, Dianne said.
Mary was one of nine Lutheran Charities comfort dogs that served in Surfside.
“We were right there, right in front of the memorial,” Dianne said.
The Moores didn’t know if they talked to any victims’ loved ones or to survivors. They offered Mary to whoever they encountered at the site, during visits to a local mall, in a grocery store parking garage and schools, where they encountered all kinds of people.
“Even though they were at the mall or a grocery store doesn’t mean they weren’t affected by what happened,” Dianne said.
In a parking lot, a girl got out of a car and hugged Mary. The girl’s family had to leave their apartment in an adjoining building because it was to be demolished.
The dog handlers would offer to pray with those they met but didn’t push their faith on anyone, they said.
They also handed out plush dog toys named Stuffy. They gave a Stuffy to one of the rescuers to give to his daughter. They met him again the next day.
“He said he was not doing good. That day was his last day (at the site),” Tom said.
Tom said the man might have been feeling emotions common to those who work in such situations: guilt for not being able to do more.
Another rescuer looked like he was carrying the weight of the world. He took a knee “and Mary just snuggled into him,” Diane recalled
“I know we made a difference. You can just feel it,” Dianne said.
“You know you’re doing some good when you see all these people with depressed looks, just standing there staring at the memorial and looking at your dog, and a smile comes to their faces,” Tom said.
The costs of the trip were substantial, and the handlers were prepared to pay some costs themselves, but St. Paul’s congregation pitched in and covered them, Skelly said.
As for Mary, she lay in the back seat of the car, hardly moving for most of the three-day journey home, not perking up and watching the traffic as she usually does.
“She was exhausted,” Tom said.