Esther the Comfort Queen has interviewed with Dr. Buuck and signed her official contract! We are excited to share a little more about the research behind this decision and what her training will entail.
What is a Comfort Dog?
Working dogs perform different tasks. A service dog is trained to perform specific tasks for an individual and an emotional support dog is trained to provide comfort to one dedicated person. Therapy dogs or comfort dogs provide emotional support to a wide variety of people in schools, hospitals, or court settings. The terms therapy dog and comfort dog are widely considered interchangeable as they help provide animal assisted therapy.
I have received many questions from different places around the country as to what our therapy dog program looks like and there are a lot of ways to answer. Most often when a facility chooses to bring a dog on staff, the dog is purchased as a fully trained young-adult working dog. This was certainly an option for Faith but we decided to pursue a puppy that had passed service work aptitude testing and begin introducing her to the Faith Family early in her training. This was an intentional decision because while the Las Vegas community tends to be transient, the Faith Family does not. Much of our staff has been here for more than a decade and many of our current students have parents who are alumni. In fitting with the feeling of family, we opted for a dog who would be able to go from puppyhood to retirement within our family.
Esther signs her "life-long" contract with HR
Research data on animal therapy can be difficult to gather as with any mental health services. When working with trauma or abuse victims there tends to not be measurable data outside of what the patient reports feeling. Scientists are just now beginning to study the effects of animal therapy on the brain as patients interact with animals. What is interesting is that there is very little negative data reported about the use of therapy dogs. The most common objection for having a therapy dog is that not everyone feels comfortable around dogs or wishes to interact with them. We feel that we addressed this by making sure the dog has a wide variety of responsibilities that students or adults who wish to avoid her may.
Interviewing with Dr. Buuck is hard work!
Comfort and Courage
Mr. Dave Enters, the head counselor at Concordia University Wisconsin, is a champion for animal-assisted therapy. Zoey the comfort dog has had such an impact on campus life that they are currently adding two more dogs to the team. Mr. Enters spoke with me about the calm Zoe brings to therapy sessions, particularly when working with abuse survivors. In the counseling world, we know that it can take many sessions before the client feels comfortable enough to open up about acute traumatic incidents. Mr. Enters had this to say about one particular student:
As you can imagine it was a tremendous surprise to me when a young woman who was sexually assaulted opened up to me about her traumatic event in the second session that we met. She was a student who had come to know and love Zoey, our Comfort Dog, from interacting with her around campus. She requested that Zoey join us for our counseling appointments. It is hard to describe the impact that Zoey had with her but it was not hard to observe her impact. While she was petting Zoey she began to talk about what happened. At first I was caught off guard. I was expecting our time to be focused on developing trust and rapport, but she began talking as if that was already in place. It is as if being with Zoey gave her a sense of confidence or courage or a sense of security and/or assurance that it was going to be OK to share her story. It was truly amazing to see. And I have seen Zoey’s astonishing influence play out in other counseling relationships that I have had. (Zoe) lifts their spirits, improves their mood, and makes their day.”
We believe in student resiliency at Faith Lutheran Middle School & High School. Mr. Mark Cheney did an exceptional job in speaking to this in an earlier blog post, Raising Exceptional Kids. The idea of raising “snowflakes” or children who cannot cope with life’s realities is a hotly debated issue in the worlds of parenting, politics, and education. We do not believe that Esther is an unnecessary fluffy (literally) crutch for children to use to avoid life. The unfortunate truth is that many students do experience trauma. Even without the horror of 1 October, students deal with death, sickness, abuse, anxiety, and very real hurt. What I loved the most about Mr. Enter’s story is that the student he was working with already knew Zoe and knew to ask for her.
While we hope that none of our students will face hard issues, it gives me comfort to know that the kids will already know Esther and know that she is available when circumstances arise. On calm and peaceful days, Esther will still bring joy to campus.
As stated, there are benefits to purchasing a fully trained working dog. The dog can be easily introduced into its working environment and pick up duties right away. The organization knows exactly what it is getting and there is very low risk. With Esther, we have to start at square one. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that as Esther ran around my house with my shoe or chewed on our high school principal Mr. Fogo (Fogo is fun, even puppies can sense it!) that I worried that this wouldn’t be a success. Plus there were quite a few nights that as the puppy whined, my husband woke up to tell me that he “really hoped” I “could pull this together.” All of that anxiety truly dissipated the first time that Brad Norton of Norton Dog Training came over to work with Esther.
Brad has many years of experience in training dogs. He does basic dog obedience but is also able to train dogs for specific tasks. Esther is working on her leash skills, sit, stay, load (to get in the car), and also “place”. Place teaches her to get on her dog bed and wait for further instructions. Brad predicts that she will be able to easily watch a whole Faith football game from the sidelines if we want after she has mastered this. He is also teaching her “touch” which is adorable because she is learning to press her little nose to a person’s hand when she is told to “touch”. Esther will hopefully learn thirty or more commands before her training is over.
We are so excited about the community’s response to Esther! I look forward to giving periodic updates on her progress. As always, you can follow her adventures on Facebook and Instagram @estherbeancomfortqueen.
Mrs. Courtney Burns serves at Faith Lutheran Middle School & High School as the Middle School Director of Guidance and Esther's 2nd boss.
Photography courtesy of Jill Heupel Photography
More information about Norton Dog Training found at https://www.nortondogtraining.com/