Gideon the comfort dog might be considered a modern-day missionary. While other service dogs are deployed to help everyone from autistic children to the visually or health impaired, Gideon is the only dog in Minnesota who is a card-carrying member of the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Ministry.
The ministry was launched during Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts in 2008. Lutheran relief staff discovered that people were more likely to board their rescue boat if a calm dog was on board.
Today there are 134 ministry dogs in the U.S., offering emotional support at national tragedies such as the Parkland High School shootings, a tender paw to Minnesota students who have lost a school friend, and a friendly tail wag to the often-vulnerable folks they meet on the street.
"This is quite a new thing in Minnesota," said Dianne Williams, who spearheaded Gideon's arrival at St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Bloomington. "We're hoping that other churches might be interested, too."
Pam Lienemann, one of Gideon's main escorts, said the golden retriever does not carry Bibles or invite proselytizing. But he has the remarkable ability to calm people in different settings, "so they can tell their stories if they want to."
"And that sometimes will lead to a discussion about faith," she said. "Many times it leads to prayer."
Gideon joined the staff at St. Michael's two years ago after the Illinois-based Lutheran Church Charities gave a presentation there. Following two years, 2,000 hours of training, and financial support from the congregation, Gideon arrived with a skill set designed to make him a rock of tranquillity to people suffering from both natural and personal disasters.
He's made a lot of friends since then. The popular retriever has his own work calendar. Over the past week, his agenda included meet-and-greets at Sunday church services along with visiting a nursing home, a hospice center, an outstate Christian youth camp and a day program for the developmentally delayed.
He also takes outreach walks at places such as the Mall of America and area parks.
This week, Gideon walked with Lienemann at Centennial Lakes Park in Edina. A handsome white dog wearing a blue vest, he was a magnet for passing children and parents. In fact, one of the first to bend down and pet him was a girl with Down syndrome walking by.
"She doesn't usually pet dogs," her surprised mother commented.
Gideon also ran into a half-dozen children having a picnic with their moms, children who proceeded to surround him and then collectively hug him. Lienemann, in turn, handed out Gideon's business cards.
"We consider this training," said Lienemann, watching Gideon calmly endure the many little bodies draped over his back. "He needs to be able to handle all different situations."
Holly Hoyt of Lakeville is the mother of two of Gideon's new friends. She was curious about Gideon's role, in particular because she worked with children in her church for years.
"I love this idea of using a dog and connecting him to ministry," said Hoyt.
The walk ended with some new friends but no particular religious experience. Lienemann said that's the way it is. Sometimes it's just a "quick pet." Other times Gideon prompts deep connections.
"Sometimes people pet him and start sobbing," said Lienemann. "Sometimes it's about the loss of a pet or a loved one. … I ran into a lady at the Mall of America, and as the kids petted Gideon, she shared that she was waiting for a test result for breast cancer.
"That's the ministry portion of this," she said. "People start to talk, and when they talk, they heal."
Williams said the K-9 ministry is relatively well-known in Illinois, home to Lutheran Church Charities. She'd like to see more in Minnesota.
She warns, however, it doesn't happen overnight. St. Michael's needed to raise funds to pay for Gideon and his training, which cost about $12,000, she said. The church had to find a caregiver home, a backup home and a veterinarian and train a dozen handlers who escort him to his many duties.
Gideon's budget is separate from the church budget, she said, so ongoing funding also is needed.
While some states' comfort dogs have been deployed for tragedies such as the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Sandy Hook and Orlando, Gideon generally works in-state. But he's received specialized training in Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 military ministry and K-9 police ministry, so he also works with certain law enforcement handlers, said Williams.
Later this month, Gideon will join the 133 other comfort dogs at their annual meeting in Illinois, marking the 10-year anniversary of the unusual ministry. The program, said Williams, has provided deep insights not just to the people petting Gideon but the people holding his leash.
"One of the biggest surprises is how Gideon can read people who are suffering," said Williams. "For example, I was at a funeral talking to someone, and Gideon started pulling me in the direction of a woman who was crying. At hospice, he'll lay his head on the bed and look directly into the person's eye.
"They're such sacred moments," she said. "And so surprising."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511