Empowering Communities

Four-legged Therapists Bring Comfort to Those in Need

March 7, 2017

Nothing cures the blues better than some affection from a furry friend – a four-legged furry friend to be exact. As trained therapy dogs, Shami and Jeremiah spend most of their days receiving hugs and spreading joy to those in need.

“A comfort dog can provide a shoulder to cry on or just a warm hug to people who need help,” says Toni Bazon-Forsberg, who is the handler and caregiver for Shami, 8, and Jeremiah, 22 months, both golden retrievers.

Toni and her daughter, Jolene Bazon, volunteer for the National Christian non-profit Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry. The ministry trains dogs to provide free comfort to people suffering and in need.

Jolene and Toni with Shami (left) and Jeremiah (right).

Jolene and Toni with Shami (left) and Jeremiah (right).

“Some people are more comfortable sharing their feelings with a dog because they know that their feelings will remain safe,” Toni says. “Spending time with a comfort dog is a wonderful way to help people verbalize their feelings to begin their healing journey.”

Toni witnesses many healing journeys as she accompanies Shami and Jeremiah throughout Illinois to visit hospitals, residential care facilities, schools, businesses, and community events. They comfort military veterans, the elderly and those with special needs. They provided comfort to Illinois residents who experienced tornados in the cities of Washington in 2013, Coal City in 2014 and 2015, and Rochelle/Fairdale in 2015.

Toni and Shami have also traveled around the country to bring comfort to those who have experienced disasters. They went to Newtown, Conn., in 2012 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and to Boston in 2013 after the marathon bombing. They later traveled to Arapahoe, Colo., and Marysville, Wash., following school shootings as well as Napa, Calif., following an earthquake.

Toni and Shami are somewhat celebrities receiving plenty of local and national media coverage for their activities including a segment about comfort dogs on Good Morning America in 2013.

“Shami senses when somebody is sad because she often goes directly to the person who needs her the most,” says Toni, who works as a senior environmental coordinator at ComEd.

Comfort dogs are trained not to bark, jump or lick people. Instead, they are trained, starting at 8-weeks-old, to encourage plenty of hugs, affectionate ear scratches and belly rubs. Comfort dogs have been known to lower people’s blood pressure, relieve stress and increase feelings of happiness.

“Shami and Jeremiah regularly visit students who have autism. Their presence brings the students out of their shells so that they interact with the dogs and each other,” she says.

Toni met and took over the care of Jeremiah, a staff dog for Lutheran Church Charities, in 2016. Toni met Shami in 2009 when she was placed at St. John Lutheran Church & Early Learning Center in Darien, Ill. A longtime member of the church, Toni agreed to care and work as a handler for Shami.

Shami was diagnosed with cancer last September following an emergency surgery to treat a ruptured tumor and removal of her spleen. Doctors gave her two months to live without chemotherapy and five months to live with chemotherapy. Shami’s Team chose chemotherapy.

“She’s had some major struggles along the way, but she’s doing well for now,” Toni says. “We are just keeping a very close watch over her. We are grateful for every single day we have together.”

The Lutheran Ministry now has placed more than 80 comfort dogs in churches and schools and has more than 20 puppies in training. Learn more here.