Lockport chaplain’s dog brings comfort to those in need
December 8, 2012 7:34PM
The Rev. Mark Hein and his comfort dog, Samuel, greet children Dec. 1 at a Santa's Workshop at O'Hare International Airport. | submitted photo
Updated: January 15, 2013 4:19PM
About 100 terminal and seriously ill children reached the North Pole last weekend. And they found out it’s gone to the dogs.
In August, the Rev. Mark Hein added to his duties as pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and chaplain of the Lockport Township Fire Protection District by working with “Samuel.”
Samuel is an 11-month-old English cream golden retriever who is being trained as a service dog to comfort someone who goes through a traumatic incident. Hein won’t automatically bring Samuel to every fire, crash or disaster, but if it appears someone could use something else to focus on, his wife, Donna, or another handler will have the animal ready.
Hein said comfort dogs provide well-documented therapeutic effects in Lutheran Church Charities’ national program.
“Their ability to reduce stress and help diffuse ... emotionally charged situations is quite amazing,” Hein said. “Samuel builds a connection for someone to me. As soon as they can pet a dog their demeanor changes, their blood pressure relaxes and we provide better counseling.”
Samuel has learned commands like “lap” and “visit” to just be held or petted as long as someone needs. After his therapy training is completed the puppy will learn to be acclimated to the sirens and smells found at fire scenes. He may also train for some search-and-rescue operations.
Samuel was the rookie Dec. 1 when nine comfort dogs, including his sisters and cousins, were stationed at Santa’s Workshop, which was reached by the United Airlines terminals at O’Hare International Airport.
“He performed beautifully, though there were new things. He’d never gone down an escalator before. It wasn’t a pretty picture,” Hein said.
But the weather was, so the children, their parents and medical personnel received boarding passes for “Fantasy Flight” and took off.
The flight plan would appear to be a short loop around Lake Michigan and back to another gate, but with airport fire trucks spraying water overhead, the passengers taxied up to a winter wonderland.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Hein said.
Chicago firefighters, Benny the Bull and the comfort dogs were waiting to help Santa Claus hand out gifts.
Some children played with Samuel, while others just wanted to touch him.
Hein and Samuel hope to be invited back for next year’s flight.
Besides training as a fire service dog, Samuel will also visit hospitals and nursing homes.
“He spends the mornings in my office at the church, and I’ve already had people who’ve come (for counseling) with me. Just like at a fire scene, they open up more while petting him,” Hein said.
Samuel has a “Samuel Comfort Dog” page on Facebook that includes ways to make donations toward his care and training.