Furry friend comforts in time of need

Yareli Lora

Felisa Nihof, pre-vet sophomore, stops by to greet comfort dog Elijah on her way out of Moffett library on Sept. 20. Photo by Harlie David

Elijah isn’t an ordinary golden retriever.

And he doesn’t have an ordinary job — for a dog.

Elijah is an 18-month-old golden retriever that is part of the Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. He is a professional comfort dog in the community that comforts anyone that needs love and support.

“Elijah has a job. He is here to comfort those in need and wherever he is wanted, that is where he goes. He’s out here for the community,” JoAnn Kurtz, lead coordinator of Lutheran Church, said.

On Wednesday, Sept. 20 Michaela Seeliger, Director of Christian education at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, brought Elijah onto campus to comfort students after hearing about the loss of sophomore cornerback Robert Grays.

“I got a news alert on my phone and so JoAnn and I were emailing before the sun even came up about how soon we could get to campus and what we could be doing, because when I got on Facebook everybody everywhere was already talking about it,” Seeliger said.

Grays suffered a neck injury while making a tackle during the team’s game on Saturday, Sept. 16 against Texas A&M-Kingsville. He was hospitalized and died on Sept. 19 from the critical injury.

“I knew that students needed some support and comfort so I figured that I would bring Elijah onto campus. We stood around different areas where I could see students so that they could see him too and love on him and just let him be there for them,” Seeliger said.

Students had a positive response to Elijah’s visit on campus.

“It’s important to have plenty of support during trying times like these. We lost an ambitious young man who was passionate about football and close to so many people on campus. I didn’t know him personally but I feel the sadness and broken spirits all around,” Jaelen Lewis, engineering senior, said.

Elijah is a furry friend who brings a calming influence and allows people to open up their hearts and receive help for what is affecting them.

“People grieve in different ways. Some people don’t like to share their feelings or open up and talk about what happened and you have to respect that. Sometimes your presence is enough just like this dog,” Lewis said.

After stressful and traumatic events, people can seek relief by petting and cuddling a dog.

“He makes such a big difference in people’s lives by providing comfort and just being by your side,” Seeliger said.

One student smiling widely as he eagerly approached to pet the gently, furry canine, instantly fell to one knee to stroke and gently squeeze the dog’s ears.

“It’s not everyday you see a dog on campus just hanging out ready to be loved on and petted. If I usually see a dog with a vest on I usually assume you can’t pet it because it’s working,” Lewis said.

Elijah is a professional comfort dog, meaning anyone can pet him. He provides affection.

“There is a difference between a service and comfort dog. A comfort dog is to do exactly just that. To comfort anyone and is allowed to let anyone pet him,” Kurtz said.

When Elijah was sitting in front of Moffett Library, students that walked by stared and smiled widely as he began to wag his tail.

“He is just so cute I had to pet him,” Jordan York, nursing freshman, said.

Josh Mujica, education grad student, said a dog is a great way to alleviate a tough time.

“It’s really unexpected to see a dog on campus but I couldn’t think of a better way to  support a grieving community than by having man’s best friend by your side to help you get through it,” Mujica said.

Even students that didn’t know Grays agreed that Elijah can make someone’s day.

“I felt really bad that I didn’t really know Robert but I think it’s such a wonderful idea to have a dog like Elijah come on campus during a time of need. It would also be great if they did that more often. I’ve seen this dog like three times on campus and it literally makes my day just to see him,” Felisa Nihof, pre vet sophomore, said.

Elijah derives from Lutheran Church Charities (headquarter in Northbrook, Illinois) that help make a difference by sharing mercy, compassion, presence, and proclamation of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering and in need.

Lutheran Church Charities is a non profit ministry that supports Christian human care ministries of the church. Lutheran Church Charities also works throughout the United States and Internationally.

“Our Pastor had gone to a conference and had said how he saw a booth set up by the people that have the comfort dogs, the organizers, and he saw the booth and he started asking questions and came back to our church and told us about his experience and wanted to share it with our community. It took us almost two years before we were able to get the dog,” Kurtz said.

Once Elijah was ready, the handlers had to travel to Chicago for three days of training.

“The training with the handlers was three intense days of training from 7 a.m. to 5:30 at night with homework,” Kurtz said.

Elijah has been in the community for three months and has already been busy visiting churches, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, events, and in disaster response situations.

“We got Elijah back in August from Chicago and as soon as we got him, he got deployed down to Houston for about a week to help with the hurricane harvey victims,” Kurtz said.

Elijah also comforted victims of Hurricane Harvey.

According to American Kennel Club, Golden Retrievers are one of the most popular dog breeds in the U.S. The breed is highly intelligent with a tolerant attitude that makes for a highly capable working dog.

“Elijah knows 33 commands and he is triple vested,” Seeliger said.

The K-9 is vested for the police force, the military and comfort.

“There’s over 100 nation wide and only five dogs in Texas that are a part of Lutheran Church Charities K-9 comfort dogs,” Kurtz said.

Like Elijah, the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs are all golden retrievers who bring a calming influence, allowing people to open up their hearts and receive help in times of need.

“These type of dogs originally went out to Sandy hook when they had the shootings, they went to the Boston bombing, I mean they go anywhere nationwide when there’s a natural or man-made disaster,” Kurtz said.

Golden retrievers excel at retrieving game for hunters, tracking, sniffing out drugs and as therapy and assistance dogs.

According to Amy Shojar, behaviorist and author said golden retrievers need daily exercise such as a walk or jog, free time in the yard, a run at the beach or lake, or a game of fetch.

“When Elijah’s not on duty he loves playing b-a-l-l. I have to spell it out or his ears will begin to perk up and get excited,” Kurtz said.

Golden retrievers were bred to work. They need to have a job to do, such as retrieving the paper, waking up family members, or competing in dog sports.

“A tired golden is a well-behaved golden,”Shojar said.

Elijah’s stress therapy job involves helping others by allowing people to interact with him, and people benefit from interacting with the canine. Simply petting a dog can decrease levels of stress hormones, regulate breathing, and lower blood pressure.

Research also has shown that petting releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection, in both the dog and the human.

“There are so many students on campus that had to leave their dogs back home and hearing them comment about how they miss their dogs is another reason to bring Elijah. Having him gives people a little distraction and just something else to think about,” Kurtz said.

The presence of an animal can help calm people and simply provide wordless emotional release.

“I think he is such a positive influence wherever he goes and has such a great impact on the community,” Kurtz said.

To some, the idea of sending a dog to a grieving person might seem too simplistic, but to others it may just be what they need.

“He is an influence that doesn’t argue with people, doesn’t judge anyone, he’s just there to love. You know he doesn’t tell anybody that they are wrong or that their feelings aren’t valid, he’s there to love and to be loved back,” Kurtz said.