The children wanted to talk to Candace, alone.
They were students at a Wisconsin school, where, according to the Rev. Rod Armon, there had been a crisis. He didn’t say what kind of crisis or where it occurred, only that it warranted sending counselors to aid the troubled and traumatized.
Armon, pastor for pastoral care at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Portage, is the handler for Candace, a 2½-year-old golden retriever trained as a comfort dog for Lutheran Church Charities.
It was just fine with him that the youngsters whispered their concerns into Candace’s floppy ear.
“I don’t know what those children said to Candace,” Armon said.
“And,” added Portage Police Chief Ken Manthey, “Candace isn’t talking either.”
Candace is one of 130 dogs in 25 states trained for the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry of the Northbrook, Illinois-based Lutheran Church Charities.
Her home base is St. John’s Lutheran Church, and her home is with Armon. But Manthey is training to be a handler for Candace.
Once completed, when Candace is on the job, she will wear one of three vests: the standard comfort dog vest, a camouflage-pattern vest indicating her training to work with veterans, and a police vest. The police vest signals an ability to address people in public safety settings — not only victims of crimes or catastrophes, but also public safety workers, such as 911 emergency dispatchers who might be traumatized by a work-related incident.
Manthey said he sought training in handling a comfort dog in anticipation of what he hopes will be his post-retirement career as a law enforcement chaplain.
But Armon, who is Manthey’s pastor, suggested he undertake the training now, while he still works in law enforcement.
Debra Baran, Lutheran Church Charities communications director, said K-9 Comfort Dogs is a distinctly Christian ministry. Like Candace, dogs typically are based at church congregations, and are part of the congregation’s outreach ministry.
“It’s all about sharing the mercy, compassion, presence and proclamation of Jesus Christ,” she said.
Richard Martin, director of the K-9 Comfort Dogs ministry, said the dogs all are golden retrievers because the breed typically is gentle and responsive to people.
He said the ministry got started on Feb. 14, 2008, when six people in a classroom at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb were killed in a mass shooting, including the shooter, and 17 others were injured.
When the word got out that teams of counselors were needed, some from Lutheran Church Charities took their dogs along.
“We had a tent with counselors, and a tent with dogs,” Martin recalled. “And guess where people went?”
Martin said the dogs for the program are chosen as puppies from breeders and initially given obedience training.
Their training as comfort dogs, he said, basically entails encouraging their instinct to form connections with people of all ages.
“They’re trained to be loved on,” he said.
The dogs all are given Biblical names.
Candace is named for an Ethiopian queen whose servant encounters the Christian apostle Philip and becomes a Christian (Acts 8:26-40). Each dog has a special Bible verse. For Candace, it’s Matthew 9:36: “When he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Candace has visited ailing people at places such as Divine Savior Healthcare and the Columbia Health Care Center in Wyocena.
Martin said the dogs often work outside of the communities where they live, and they’re called on sometimes to serve many miles away.
Dogs and handlers are being mobilized now to go to Aurora, Illinois, where a gunman killed five people and injured six others before being killed by police.
Whether Candace will be called to Aurora remains to be seen, Martin said; usually, dogs are summoned from regions as close to the incident site as possible.
One of the key aspects of training a comfort dog, Armon said, is to ensure it can work with multiple handlers, not just the primary handler, so the dog can be available at any time.
“Obviously,” Manthey said, “working with a comfort dog would go hand in hand with being a police chaplain.”