Cubby the dog

Comfort Dogs on the Rise

A Very Cubby Comfort: With a growing need for solace amid difficult times, the need for Comfort Dogs are on the rise

  by Melanie Taussig

Cubby Comfort Dog at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ft. Collins, Colo. Photo courtesy of Melanie Taussig for Mental Health Missions.

Meet Cubby, a five year-old Golden Retriever and Comfort Dog. Upon first glance, Cubby looks like another cute golden retriever. Sitting outside the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ft. Collins, Colo., Cubby appears well-groomed and is very friendly. With those irresistible “puppy eyes”, she captivates your attention and you just want to sit down and snuggle with her. However, spend more than a few minutes with Cubby and it quickly becomes apparent that there is something special about her. Cubby is not like any other dog. This is in fact because Cubby is an LCC K-9 Comfort Dog. She is specially trained to help those in need and over the years, those needs have grown.

Unlike an emotional support or therapy dog, which are considered pets, Cubby is a highly trained working dog. She is owned by Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, which is an affiliate of Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, the national organization that is headquartered outside of Chicago. LCC’s K-9 Ministry was started in 2008 by Tim Hetzner, President and CEO shortly after the mass shooting that took place at Northern Illinois University.

Following the tragedy at NIU, Mr. Hetzner paid a visit to the campus with two dogs and he observed the comfort these animals brought to people who were in extreme distress and shock. The response was incontrovertible; those affected were finding consolation from interacting with the dogs. The impact was so great that Mr. Hetzner and the dogs were invited back to the university for graduation. Thus, LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry was established. Today the organization has more than 130 dogs in 27 different states. These dogs, exclusively golden retrievers due to the breed’s calm demeanor, have alongside their handlers, responded to numerous national disasters and crisis situations.

Dogs like Cubby are designated to serve the needs of community members including veterans and first-responders. Named after a Military dog who fought in the Vietnam War, you could say that serving is rooted in Cubby’s DNA. Cubby has comforted high school students following a suicide, patients in hospitals and she regularly visits residents at senior living facilities. The response to seeing Cubby is almost always unanimous joy. In addition to Cubby’s commitments in the Ft. Collins area, she has been deployed to help console people following tragic events across the country. Among the many critical incidents Cubby has responded to: the aftermath of the mass shootings in Las Vegas, NV, Parkland, FL, Thousand Oaks, CA and El Paso, TX, to name a few.

Bonnie Fear is one of Cubby’s handlers, her official title, “Top Dog.” Ms. Fear has been working alongside Cubby for the past few years and calls this one of the most fulfilling experiences she has ever had. The pair has responded to some heartbreaking incidents and Ms. Fear has witnessed just how impactful Cubby can be when people are in the depths of despair. Ms. Fear speaks about how Cubby seems to have a sixth sense and knows when someone is hurting. Cubby Comfort Dog is trained to respond and it is often nothing more than her presence in the moment that helps people through the pain, perhaps making it a little less intense.

While there is no disputing that dogs have an undeniable effect on people, it takes a special kind of dog to be an LCC K-9 Comfort Dog. Cubby and her fellow LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs go through an extensive training that can last anywhere from 18-24 months. The dogs are trained by LCC’s K-9 training staff along with apprentice trainers before they are ready to put their boots, or in this case paws, on the ground and start work. To train one of these animals is a big investment but the payout is irrefutable. According to Ms. Fear, “Taking Cubby to see someone in need and how that person reacts, that is our paycheck.” Over an hour-long conversation with Ms. Fear she refers to countless instances when she has been in awe of the way people connect with Cubby, some confiding their secrets and fears during moments of sheer terror. As Ms. Fear puts it, “what we do, it’s all about connection.”

Ms. Fear speaks about how the values of the Lutheran Church guide the work she and Cubby do. She describes Cubby as a bridge to comfort and offers prayer as an option to those who are seeking a spiritual connection. In her own experience, Ms. Fear sees the work she is doing as her calling and feels fortunate to be able to bring joy and hope into the lives of others, even if that is only momentary at times. Ms. Fear indicates that she and Cubby always offers free pets and it sometimes is that invitation from a friendly-faced Golden Retriever that reaches people in a way a person’s appeal cannot. Ms. Fear refers to Cubby as the “furry little bridge that connects us to people.”

Reprieve for a working dog

The situations that Cubby and Ms. Fear respond to are often stressful and sometimes that stress can be absorbed. Therefore, it is important that dog and handler alike are attentive to their needs during these tense times. For Ms. Fear and the other handlers who are responding to crisis situations that means daily debriefing and supportive processing. For the dogs, it is massages and exercise that help them to decompress. Following deployment to a critical incident, the dogs always have at least 2-3 days to “just be dogs” and enjoy playtime, rest, and gnawing on a bone.

The road to becoming a comfort dog is long and laborious. Comfort dogs receive some two thousand hours of instruction in order to be fully prepared to do this important job. Training is provided by LCC’s K-9 training staff and apprentice trainers donate their time in support of LCC’s mission, which ensures these dogs are available to those in need. Cubby and all LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs only go to where they are invited and there is never any cost associated with their visits. Everything from the training, to travel, to the handlers is funded by volunteer time and donations to the organization.

Finding comfort in the hard times

As the world around us moves quickly and circumstances can turn on a dime, stress can enter into our lives, however unwelcome it is. Stressful events can result in trauma, which can present differently in each individual. The presence of a dog has been shown to reduce stress in people. While LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs don’t stay with people long term, their unique and specialized training make these dogs optimal to aid people in extremely difficult, sometimes unbearable moments.

When a person experiences a traumatic event, they may feel an everlasting and unshakeable sense of pain. Enter a dog like Cubby and that can alleviate the anguish of the situation, at least in that moment. While such relief may only be temporary, it is in fact a small reprieve from what may feel like an abyss of despair. The road to emotional wellness, especially subsequent to difficult circumstances starts with being credulous to the idea that things can and will get better. Even during the most agonizing of times when trust in the world may be in contention, an LCC K-9 Comfort Dog can be emblematic of the good that exists. With her tranquil nature and gentle presence, Cubby emanates hope. You need not look any further than into Cubby’s sweet eyes to be reminded of this.

Cubby and her handler, Bonnie Fear. Photo courtesy of Melanie Taussig for Mental Health Missions.

For more information on Cubby Comfort Dog visit her Facebook Page. If you or an organization you are affiliated with would like to inquire about the LCC K-9 Ministry or about Cubby in particular, please visit the following links. Donations can also be made by visiting these links: