Pax and Phoebe arrived at Texas Christian University with a purpose.
They weren’t there to take classes. They didn’t even wear a backpack. Instead, the pair came to campus for belly rubs and head pats from students. Each wore a blue vest with a patch on the side saying “comfort dog.”
Pax and Phoebe are golden retrievers working for Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, a national human-care ministry based in Illinois.
The two four-legged, furry pooches are part of the nonprofit’s Southwest Region Comfort Dog team and work at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Fort Worth and The Summit Aledo Lutheran church. Phoebe and Pax visit hospitals, nursing homes, schools and grief centers in the community to provide comfort to people in need.
Pax and Phoebe visited TCU’s Milton Daniel Hall on Nov. 1 with a mission to comfort students who were missing their pets back home, said Krystel Hernandez, hall director and TCU alumna. The dogs’ visit also helps students de-stress.
“It was also good for them to just kind of take a break. Midterms passed, but there is still that residual stress from that and finals coming around the corner,” Hernandez said. “So as much as possible, we want to make sure that we’re catering to things such as mental health and making sure that we have opportunities for them to sit back and relax a little bit.”
Lutheran Church Charities launched its comfort dog ministry in 2008 and the dogs are trained at its three facilities in Illinois. After initial training, they are available to be permanently placed with churches, schools and other ministries. Lutheran Church Charities has over 130 comfort dogs across 27 states.
Texas has nine dogs in the ministry’s Southwest Region Comfort Dog group. Phoebe was the first dog placed in the state in 2014 and is known as the matriarch of her regional team.
The Illinois-trained golden retriever joined St. Paul Lutheran Church in Fort Worth two years after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Connecticut. Janice Marut, a member of the church, remembers hearing about the tragedy while watching the news in December 2012.
As Marut watched the aftermath of the shooting on TV, she saw a group of people with golden retrievers getting off a bus to visit and pray with grief-stricken residents. They were a comfort dog ministry associated with the Lutheran church.
“I’ve been a Lutheran all my life for 60 years at that point and I’m not a dog person, but I was moved by what I heard and saw on the program,” Marut said.
Marut and other members of the church contacted the church pastor, asking to look into the comfort dog ministry. The church applied to the program in 2013 and received a notification that Phoebe was ready to come to Cowtown. Due to scheduling and weather conditions, Phoebe wasn’t picked up until January 2014. It was a high-anxiety week for all except Phoebe, who remained calm throughout, according to the ministry.
The ministry decided to add another comfort dog to the team to meet the demands of Phoebe’s growing schedule six months later. The church applied for another dog and Pax joined Phoebe in Fort Worth in July 2015.
Both dogs are owned by St. Paul Lutheran Church and The Summit. The pair also are considered affiliate members of Lutheran Church Charities where they were trained at, Marut said.
The dogs are accompanied by a team of volunteers like Marut, who is a comfort dog coordinator and high-service handler.
Marut is responsible for organizing Phoebe’s schedule and social media.
The ministry team also includes volunteer roles like caregivers, ministry partners and dog handlers. Laura Lewallen has been a member of the church for over 20 years and joined the team as a ministry partner after retiring in 2019.
Lewallen joins the dogs and handlers during visits and assists in opening doors, signing the team in and keeping an eye out for any distractions that could affect the trip.
“We’re always alert for situations that could cause a problem with the dog such as food on the floor, another dog, a child sticking their fingers up the dog’s nose,” Lewallen said.
After two-and-a-half years of being a ministry partner, Lewallen then traveled to Northbrook, Illinois, for training to become a dog handler in 2022.
Lewallen learned 20 to 30 commands at the training to give Pax and Phoebe like “sit down,” so the dog isn’t taller than kids they visit at schools, or “visit,” where the dog would put their head close to a person’s hand at a hospital bed.
Marut and Lewallen both said they have seen Pax and Phoebe’s personalities shine on and off the clock.
Phoebe, who is 11, is known for her quiet and calm demeanor, Marut said. She enjoys sunbathing outside when she isn’t working.
“It’s just amazing to realize how much she loves being with people,” Marut said. “Even from a young puppy, a year and a half old, she was still that calm and quiet dog.”
Pax, who is 9, is spot on with his commands, Lewallen said. When the working vest comes off, Pax lets his goofy side shine through.
“His favorite thing right now is chasing geckos. He can run a path in our flower bed looking for geckos,” Marut said.
The ministry also participates in Lutheran Church Charities Kare 9 Military Ministry, where Pax and Phoebe will switch from blue to camo vests to visit veteran homes and attend Gold Star events.
Looking ahead, Marut said she hopes that the Fort Worth program will add a police version of the comfort dog ministry. The program is also in the process of getting a third dog since Phoebe and Pax are close to retiring, Marut said.
In the meantime, she, Lewallen, Pax, Phoebe and the rest of the ministry plan to continue providing comforting memories to Fort Worth residents.
“There are so many people that know these dogs and what they do,” Lewallen said. “They remember that you provided something. Comfort, service, joy, laughter just anything but they remember that.”
Marissa Geene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @marissaygreene.
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