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By Sue Sprang

PORTAGE – This continues a look at Pastor Joan Herbon of Lord of Life Lutheran Church, Portage, her work with fostering assistance dogs, and how this relationship has shaped her ministry. To read part 1, go to http://mittensynod.server303.com/a-twist-on-lutheran-dogma-part-1/.

An uplifting calm.

That’s what happens when Pastor Joan Herbon and her dogs walk through the doors of Medilodge, a nursing home and rehabilitation center in Portage.

Herbon, who serves Lord of Life Lutheran Church, Portage, is a foster mom to young dogs who are in their first steps of training as assistance dogs for Paws with a Cause. Her most recent charges are Kayci (who wound up her time with Herbon on Feb. 1) and Merle, foster dogs #41 and 42, respectively.

Lord of Life members expect the dogs to be in worship and have fun giving their pastor “grief” if the dogs aren’t there. Here, Kayci receives a blessing on her last day with the congregation

Lord of Life members expect the dogs to be in worship and have fun giving their pastor “grief” if the dogs aren’t there. Here, Kayci receives a blessing on her last day with the congregation

The residents and staff of Medilodge look forward to Herbon’s weekly visit – a situation she fell into via two members of her congregation.

Betty and JoDean became connected to Medilodge about three years ago, when they began weekly visits to a fellow church member. As time passed, the team began visiting with other residents, bringing offerings of prayers, flowers, reading material, humor, and words of encouragement. Often they bring sweet treats for those who can have them.

Over time, the women learned that some residents desired Holy Communion, but the two clerics who came on a regular basis refused to commune anyone outside their respective denominations.  Betty and JoDean shared their concern with Herbon – and the rest fell into place.

Now Herbon and her dogs go to Medilodge every Tuesday afternoon.

When Herbon and her charges enter the building, one can sense the rise in spirit. It’s hard to miss the upturned mouths and twinkling eyes. The dogs are relaxed and seem to be a natural extension of Herbon’s pastoral love and care. Their gentleness clearly affects those with whom they come in contact.

Herbon leads a devotional time that includes Bible stories, songs, visuals, prayers, and connecting with the dogs. In fact, she uses the young canines as teaching tools.

Last November, one of Herbon’s devotionals focused on what each of us, God’s children, do well and what we need to tweak. She used her foster dogs as examples.

“All of us have our things we do well,” Herbon said. “All of us have things we need to work on. Kayci and Merle are no different.”

She used visuals to accentuate her point.

The dogs’ presence raise the spirits of the Medilodge residents and staff.

The dogs’ presence raise the spirits of the Medilodge residents and staff.

For example, Herbon blew bubbles. The dogs were learning to not chase distractions, but to stay by their owners. New trainee, Merle, eventually found the bubbles too tempting – but she quickly returned to Hebron’s side when commanded. Kayci watched the bubbles, but stayed put.

“Kayci does very well with not chasing things – except squirrels,” Herbon said, “We really need to work on that.”

When she set a balloon afloat, the dogs watched with longing. Merle did some impatient wiggling, but heeded her trainer’s words.

Herbon caught the balloon and popped it, but the dogs stayed beside her. They were learning to not fear loud noises, such as guns and backfiring cars.

Herbon then introduced a cadre of stuffed or puppet animals, pinning them with Christian characteristics.

Examples of these furry, fuzzy, colorful cloth friends:

“Silver”: He likes to play in water – especially in the baptismal font.

“Champ”: Champ is studious. He really likes to read and study the Bible.

“Ruby”: She’s the most gentle of dinosaurs and has a warm heart. In fact, when Ruby became a Christian, she became a vegetarian.

To add to the fun, residents were encouraged to pop bubbles, bop the balloon, and pet the toy animals. But they were also encouraged to stroke the dogs, who laid heads in laps and raised paws for greeting.

The dogs’ aura was sweetness and patience. The residents’ response was a sense of peace and delight.

Along the way, Kayci and Merle were rewarded with treats.

Merle sniffs out a treat

Merle sniffs out a treat

Herbon explained that, as a trainer, she is to love the dogs and take care of them, while guiding them through learning what they need to do to work effectively alongside others.

“Jesus is here to love you, to take care of you, too,” she said to the residents. “In the church we divide up our jobs and we all have to do what we do best to make it work. And we have to work on not getting distracted.

“[The trainer] is ‘the giver of all good things’,” she added, referring to the treats, love, and attention she lavishes on the dogs. “And we also have a ‘giver of all good things’.”

And The Giver’s people say: Amen!

Photos by Ruth Wright or provided by Joan Herbon. Thank you to Medilodge of Portage for permission to publish the photos.