Luke, the comfort dog, and two of his handlers — Judy Adams (left, kneeling) and Michelle Malaski (standing). David Ibata for the AJC

Community Voices: ‘Comfort dog’ helps church reach people

A church in Alpharetta has a helper in ministry whose job is mainly to sit. He works six hours a day, six days a week; is happy with a pat on the head, and gets ecstatic when you start throwing a tennis ball around.

Luke is a golden retriever that will be two years old in November. He’s the newly arrived comfort dog at Christ the Shepherd Lutheran Church and may be the first ministerial comfort dog in metro Atlanta. (Savannah got the first one in the state.)

“We aim to be the mercy, compassion, presence and proclamation of Jesus Christ for those suffering and in need,” said one of his handlers, Michelle Malaski, quoting the mission statement of Lutheran Church Charities. Also, to open doors to conversations about faith.

The Northbrook, Ill.-based LCC started the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry in 2008. It has placed more than 100 dogs at churches in 23 states.

They respond to crises big and small. Nineteen dogs and 34 handlers from within Texas and as far away as Connecticut attended to victims of Hurricane Harvey. Luke has yet to deploy to a natural disaster, but he and his 12 volunteer handlers in Alpharetta are in continuous training.

Luke isn’t a service animal or an emotional therapy or support dog, which have different training. He’s intended simply to console.

“We go around to anyone who gives us an invitation,” said another handler, Judy Adams, children’s ministry director at Christ the Shepherd. “We’ve been to independent living facilities, to members of our church who have been ill. We’re able to go in and just be a presence for people in a difficult situation.”

One of Luke’s next visits will be to a campus ministry at Georgia Tech.

“Finals time would be a great time to go, so the kids can talk to the dogs about stress,” Adams said. No one, she said, keeps a secret like a dog.

The handlers also hope to introduce Luke to firefighters and other first responders.

Christ the Shepherd got its canine comforter from LCC in August. He’s had more than 2,000 hours of training and knows 25 commands – from “sit” and “stay” to special directions like “rise,” putting his two front paws on the laps of persons in wheelchairs so they don’t have to lean over to pet him.

He’s acclimated to people, including children who’d want to play with him. He has business cards, fliers, a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/lukecomfortdog – Malaski, software engineer for a jobs website, is Luke’s social media director), a blue vest that identifies him as a comfort dog and a military camouflage vest for visits with veterans.

When Luke is on duty, he’s a paradigm of calm. But when the vest comes off, he’s like other retrievers. “His ‘reward’ is playing ball or a massage,” Adams said. “No treats; he’s on a specialized diet.”

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