They went to work at Sandy Hook School after the Newtown massacre and in Boston after the marathon bombing. They were at West after the fertilizer plant exploded and in Oklahoma after a tornado devastated the city of Moore.
Extraordinarily sensitive and carefully trained, K-9 Comfort Dogs — 70 of them nationwide — deliver solace to anyone who hurts.
One of them, Phoebe, worked her first shift Tuesday at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth. Under a new hospital program, the sweet-tempered golden retriever will visit patients each Tuesday, and will also spend time every week at the Texas Health hospital downtown.
Her handler, Teresa Schardt of Fort Worth, volunteers. Phoebe lives with another volunteer family and also has a backup caregiver, as well as a volunteer groomer and an incredibly full schedule.
The comfort dogs are in such demand nationwide that the program expands constantly, said Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities. The program is a ministry of the organization, which is based in Illinois and run in Fort Worth by St. Paul Lutheran Church and Summit Lutheran Church.
“We have orders for quite a few more, “ Hetzner said in a telephone interview. “It has grown rather quickly.”
The program began in 2008, after the organization responded to a call for help after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, he said. People were being rescued without their pets, and Lutheran Church Charities was asked to rescue pets along with victims.
“We saw the strong bond between people and their pets, how it helped people recover,” Hetzner said. “We started seeing that and seeing the value of that.”
The group, which didn’t have another comfort dog program to learn from, created one as they went along, he said. They started with four dogs.
Phoebe and her fellow comfort dogs — all golden retrievers — are trained as service dogs but not used as such, and they are different from therapy dogs, which typically live with one handler.
“Our dogs are trained with multiple handlers so they can go out in more places than one person could go,” Hetzner said.
Phoebe knows commands such as “rise,” said Schardt, which is used if she needs to stand with her paws on the rails of a hospital bed for a patient who can’t get up. She also knows how to place her front legs lightly on a patient’s lap, shifting most of her weight to her back legs to avoid putting pressure on someone who is ill or injured.
She visits a variety of places every day, including schools, nursing homes and private homes, all free and on request.
An assistant, Kathy Tewes, goes with Phoebe and Schardt to help make sure dog and handler stay focused. On a typical visit to Texas Health Southwest, Phoebe sees four to five patients.
“A hospital can be very institutional,” said Gretchen Hunt, associate chief nursing officer at the hospital. “A dog can connect with them on emotional and spiritual levels.” She said the program is part of Texas Health’s effort to see to the overall well-being of its patients.
From the look of it Tuesday, Phoebe was also connecting with the staff, who gathered around her the minute she appeared on the floor for a photo shoot.
As she posed and had her ears scratched, retired Col. Robert D. Peterson made his way down the hall in a wheelchair. The frail 90-year-old veteran left the hospital as a patient a few weeks ago and had just visited his wife, who is now in the hospital.
He spotted Phoebe and pulled over. After a lot of fussing around ,the two of them — Peterson’s family communicating to him with a small white markerboard about the dog, staff gathering to help — everything stopped. Phoebe had rested her chin on his knee amid the commotion, looking steadfastly up at the old soldier. She didn’t move a muscle and neither did he.
He finally broke the silence after a long, soulful moment and turned away quickly, regaining his military bluster.
“I’m going home,” he said.
And Phoebe headed out too, ready for her next appointment.