Lockport pastor’s ‘comfort dog’ trains for rescue
In the Old Testament, the prophet and judge Samuel traveled annually to several cities, delivering messages of comfort and hope that residents needed to hear.
Samuel, a golden retriever and certified comfort dog belonging to the Rev. Mark Hein, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Lockport, is living up to his namesake.
Samuel has been to West, Texas, working with the first responders and survivors of the recent deadly fertilizer plant explosion.
He also recently brought cheer and comfort at St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet to patients who had been evacuated from Morris Hospital because of flooding after an April rainstorm.
Recently, some dogs from the Lutheran Church Charities K9 Comfort Dog program, which trained Samuel, visited Newtown, Conn., where the Sandy Hook School shootings occurred in December. Hein said one dog significantly impacted a distressed boy who wasn’t opening up to the counselors.
“All of a sudden, he started talking to the dog. It was a breakthrough,” Hein said. “The counselors were able to work with him from there.”
On Thursday, Hein, who also is fire chaplain for the Lockport Township Fire Protection District, will speak about the value of comfort dogs and his experiences with Samuel at the 80th annual Ladies Aid Missionary Lunch at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Joliet.
Hein acquired Samuel in August as part of a pilot program to determine whether comfort dogs could be trained to also work as fire service dogs in search-and-rescue efforts.
Born in January 2012, Samuel worked with a trainer until Hein became his handler. The dog then worked further with a private trainer until January 2013. Samuel’s “alpha male” personality suggests he will make a good search-and-rescue dog, Hein said.
“He doesn’t shy away from sensory things some animals have problems with, such as loud noises and lights,” Hein said. “He also works well in tight corners. Some dogs shy away from them because they get claustrophobic.”
Because Hein is trained in critical incident stress debriefing, Samuel accompanied him to Coal City in October after a man critically injured three village employees when he hit their public works vehicle. Samuel also accompanied Hein to Wilmington in March, when four teens died after their car dove into a creek.
A week ago Sunday, Hein, his wife, Donna, Samuel and four other comfort dogs and their handlers flew out of Wisconsin by private plane to Texas.
On the first day, the Rev. Matthew Canion, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Waco, Texas, and chaplain for the Texas State Police, took the group on a tour of the city, going into areas not barricaded off so the dogs could offer comfort to those needing it. A day later, the dogs were visiting schoolchildren.
“People of every age just gravitate toward the dogs,” Hein said. “They (dogs) give them an opportunity if they want to talk. We’re just there to listen, comfort them and let them know we care.”
But even comfort dogs get down time, and Samuel is no exception. When he returns home, Samuel transitions into the family pet.
“He becomes a regular dog, but he’s still trained,” Hein said. “He doesn’t bark or run around like crazy. He’s well-mannered, that’s the best way to put it.”
Because Samuel’s training and work schedule can be grueling, he sleeps a lot otherwise. But the Heins refresh his training each day. Samuel knows about 24 commands.
“He’s trained to take verbal and hand commands and sign language,” Hein said. “He’s trained to look at his handler and do whatever we need him to do just by motioning.”