Comfort dogs give hugs and smiles to firefighters battling Dixie Fire

Several times per week, as firefighters prepare to depart or return back to base camp for their 24 hour shifts battling the Dixie Fire, they are greeted by a group of golden retrievers and their handlers from Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.

CHICO — The Dixie Fire has now grown to close to 446,723 acres, making it the third largest fire in the state's history. However, several times a week, as firefighters prepare to leave or return to base camp for his or her 24 hour shifts battling the Dixie Fire, they're greeted by a gaggle of golden retrievers and their handlers from Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.

Lutheran Church Charities The K-9 Consolation Dog Division began participating in the Cal Fire base camp at Chico Silver Dollar Fairgrounds on July 25, and continued to visit the firefighters several times a week as required. Lutheran Church Charities On Friday, K-9 comfort dogs Micah, Aaron, Reuben, Gomer, and their breeders visited the firefighters. Micah is from Light of the Valley Lutheran Church in Elk Grove, Gomer, and Aaron are from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Napa, and Reuben is from the First Lutheran Church in Yuba City. The dogs are working dogs and aren't pets, and funds to support the dogs are fundraised by each church.

Cal Fire Firefighter, Melissa Bell Pet Lutheran Church Charities, comfort dogs Reuben and Micah before leaving to assist fight the Dixie Fire on Friday at the Cal Fire base camp at Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico. Reuben is from the First Lutheran Church in Yuba City, and Micah is from the Valley Light Lutheran Church in Elk Grove. (Justin Couchot -- Enterprise-Record) “This isn't about us trying to convince people trying to hitch the Lutheran Church ,” said Lutheran Church Charities Director of Communications Debra Baran. “We are out here for people that want friendship, love and luxury .”

The Lutheran charity K-9 Comfort Dog Department may be a non-profit department. It started in 2008 and has more than 130 comfort dogs in 27 states. The organization only uses pure bread golden retrievers, calling this breed a medium-to-large dog, very docile and approachable. The dogs receive a minimum of 2,000 hours of coaching and are then assigned to a handler where the dog lives. While each dog must have a primary and secondary handler, the dogs are trained to obey the commands of up to 10 handlers. The comfort dogs visit firefighters battling wildfires across the us, however the dogs also visit schools, assisted living facilities, hospitals, police stations, fire departments, military events or wherever they're invited. The organization is mainly traveled by volunteers, and any organization it visits is free.

“When you've got them here, you’re ready to pet them and show the love. It’s just a very special connection,” Bell said. “And when people are out on the hearth line for an extended period of your time , it’s long and draining days so it helps boost the morale once we come and we’re ready to pet dogs. It just brings an entire other energy.” For Nathan Frankhauser, a Merced firefighter assisting Cal Fire on the Dixie Fire, often Facetimes his six and eight-year-old children after coming back from the hearth line when the dogs are visiting and called the dogs an “unexpected treat.” Fankhauser said the dogs became celebrities in his house, stating his kids can’t wait to find the golden retrievers when he called. Frankhauser brought home stuffed animals of two of the dogs, called “stuffies,” also as business cards for every dog with a photograph .

“You have the dogs out here, you see them from a distance and as they approach you, you can’t help but approach the dogs and begin petting the dogs,” Frankhauser said. “When they lick your hand and you are feeling that reference to the dog it just puts a smile on your face and it helps you think that about the great things in life.” Handler Marilyn Hunter said that the dogs were considered comfort dogs against service dogs because the work of a service dog is to be there for the one handling the dog, whereas a comfort dog and its handler are there to assist people .

Hunter pointed out some differences between comfort dogs, so people may treat every day dogs as pets. She said that the dogs don't give “dog kisses,” they are doing not “shake” or “high five.” The dogs don't give kisses, high fives or shake so that once they visit elderly visitors the likelihood of injury or cuts on thin skin is eliminated. When the dog goes to the toilet it's also a command — called a “hurry up.” “Everything may be a command,” Hunter said. Hunters will not show dogs in competitions and she or he and her husband were looking into which sort of ministry they might come on retirement and loves how she is in a position to assist in her retired life.

“This is extremely on the brink of my heart since I want to show dogs, so I even have handled dogs before, so this was one among those things that's sort of a calling,” Hunter said. “For some people, it’s a calling and that I desire it's because I see what these dogs do for people and they’re just wonderful.” Hunter remembers a story. A lady and two other people were sitting on a four-wheeled vehicle. When Hunter and her dog walked by, she insisted on stopping the drive. Hunter said the firefighter jumped off the four-wheeler and said, “I need a golden hug,” before giving the dog an enormous hug. “It’s those sorts of things. When firefighters come running over from two rows over because they simply need a hug.”