Greeting Saturday worshippers at Trinity Lutheran Church, Abraham had to be reminded "no licking," because he has a higher purpose. He's the church's "comfort dog."
The trained pup arrived two weeks ago as the first pooch in the state to come from the K9 Comfort Dog Ministry, which the Lutheran Church Charities started 11 years ago by using golden retrievers as a "bridge" to help people.
Garbed in a vest that says "please pet me," Abraham, 14 months old, will go where requested, from consoling the Long Island lovelorn to deploying in the aftermath of mass shootings out of state. He'll always have a team along, one of 14 handlers who will make sure he doesn't get hurt, and someone from the church who will talk to those in need.
"The comfort dog ministry falls into a creative way of sharing the love of Jesus," Pastor John Hopkins told the 60 or so worshippers at Saturday's service. "It's a scientific fact that when people pet a dog, their heart rate goes down. They start sharing. Why? Because dogs keep secrets. . . . Then what's that do? It creates an opportunity for conversation."
Team Abraham was blessed at the front of the church during the service, witnessed by seven out-of-state comfort dogs and their handlers, all arrayed behind the new dog. The canine guests had served in the aftermaths of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Parkland school shooting in Florida, the gas explosions that destroyed 40 homes in Massachusetts last year, and elsewhere.
In a "Passing of the Vest" ceremony, Donna Haines, a council member at the Hicksville church and Abraham's primary caretaker, took off Abraham's training vest and put on his official blue work vest that bears his name. The dog also got a camouflage vest to greet veterans, a community with a high suicide rate; and a third vest with a badge to meet first responders, with such visits handled by members of the military or police to better connect with those being ministered.
"The possibilities are going to be endless with him," Haines said. "I can't even imagine yet what doors are going to open for him."
Eleven years after it started, the canine ministry has become so successful, officials said, that it has branched out with plush toy comfort dogs, which deliver solace to children and even some adults long after the real retriever has gone. On Facebook, each dog has its own page to maintain the bridge to those who need help, with Haines replying — sometimes as the dog. Each dog even has a business card with photo.
Pastor Tim Hetzner, chief executive for Lutheran Church Charities, said the idea of a K-9 ministry "hit" him after a series of disasters. In Hurricane Katrina, he saw the importance of pets as the nonprofit's volunteers rescued people who stayed behind because shelters refused to accept animals. Then at another disaster response, a few volunteers brought their pet golden retrievers, and Hetzner could see victims calming down as they pet the dogs.
"Everybody I think needs a comfort dog," Hetzner said.
He recalled going to a Sandy Hook community center in Connecticut, where comfort dogs had been deployed after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults at an elementary school in 2012.
A boy who witnessed the shooting in his classroom trailed in a daze behind his parents, who were in despair because their son hadn't spoken in four days, the pastor recounted.
"He slowly walked up to the dog," Hetzner said, his voice starting to break. "The dog leaned into him and laid down. The child laid down on top of the dog. He just laid there for probably 30 seconds, 45 seconds, and then lifted up the dog and then told the dog everything that had happened in that room."
Dogs in demand
There are more than 130 comfort dogs in 27 states, K-9 ministry officials said, and more than 100 churches are waiting.
Trinity had applied in October 2017 and was approved after a process that included interviews with the pastor and a ministry outreach plan for the dog.
Abraham, who came from a Nebraska breeder, started training at 8 weeks old at the charity's headquarters in Northbrook, Illinois. Dogs learn to be calm, flop over for petting, and commands such as "lap," putting their front legs, but not sharp elbows, on a person's lap.
Most dogs train for 18 to 24 months, but Abraham finished his training in a year.
"You could whisper his commands," Haines said. "He did it very easily, very gently."
He's focused with his work vest on, but when it's off, he loves to chase balls. He's already gone to the Long Island Alzheimer's Foundation, where one man rubbed a playing card over the dog's back for good luck.
Monday, he'll attend students' health fair at the Long Island Lutheran Middle and High School. Nassau County's 911 center has already requested his de-stressing presence, the puppy's first official job.
Haines said she'll have to get him used to New York, things like sirens and crowds, which made him nervous when he arrived at LaGuardia Airport.
When he doesn't have a job, he hangs out at Pastor Hopkins' office, and at night, he goes home with Haines.
Abraham and other comfort dogs are following Jesus' example of field work, especially at a time when people are leery of churches, and millennials don't want to join, Hetzner said.
"If a church is going to get a dog, they must use it for outreach ministry," he said. "That's the main focus of the dog, to get outside of the walls of the church. Go out where the hurting people are."