ROUND LAKE: They are described as Canines 4 Comfort.
But dogs gifted to veterans, children, police departments and schools throughout Lake County and beyond in recent years have provided more than just comfort, say those who have benefited from them.
They have brought laughter, smiles, joy and more support than many expected.
“It really has changed our lives,” said Jennifer Graves, whose 8-year-old son Logan received a goldendoodle named Ozzie from Canines 4 Comfort (Canines4Comfort.org) last year.
“Things were really tough before Ozzie came along. Now it’s been a blessing…not only to have Ozzie but also the support of the organization,” Graves said.
Comprised entirely of volunteers, Canines 4 Comfort, a nonprofit organization based in Round Lake, trains and places a variety of dogs, from purebred golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers and German shepherds to mixes from area pet shelters, with veterans and children who need psychiatric services or emotional support. .
The dogs have also gone to area police departments and schools to help defuse emotional situations and provide a calm and welcoming environment. Along with first-aid teams, the dogs have brought goodwill to neighborhoods, provided relief to staff dealing with traumatic situations, and assisted with witness and victim interviews and reports.
Since placing its first dog in 2019, Canines 4 Comfort has placed 18 dogs and has a waiting list. Five more are expected to graduate soon and four new dogs are expected to enter the program.
“What we do a little bit differently than other organizations is when we think we have a good match, we pair up the person and the dog and have them train together,” said Lisa Wernli of Antioch, one of the co-founders and the chief operating officer of the organization.
Relying on donations, Canines 4 Comfort hopes to raise money at the fourth annual Strut Your Mutt event.
A charity walk, the event begins at 10:30 am on September 17 at Caboose Park, 37908 Fairfield Road, Lake Villa. Along with a fun family run or walk, the event includes a chance to meet dogs in training, a personalized t-shirt, free food from Antioch Pizza, a dog parade and more. Registration is at https://canines4comfort.ejoinme.org/MyE…/StrutYourMutt2022.
“It’s just meant to be a fun day out with families and dogs,” Wernli said.
The organization does not have a physical building. Dogs-in-training, from 5 months to about 1 year old, live in the homes of volunteer “puppy breeders.” They initially receive training in a parking lot and space provided by the Grayslake Counseling Center.
“We don’t hand over a fully trained dog,” Wernli said. “So, in essence, we’re training the handler on how to work with the dog, and we’re specifically training the dog on how to meet the needs of that handler.”
The entire process takes on average between a year and 18 months, but even when the dogs are released to their handlers, the organization is still involved in postgraduate training, registrations and general support, Wernli said.
They tell recipients, “We hope you like us because we will become your extended family,” he said.
Graves said that Ozzie not only helped his son gain confidence, but also provided him with stress relief and a connection to other parents facing similar situations.
“It’s more like a community,” said Graves, who turned to Canines 4 Comfort after researching other sources. The cost of the dogs through other services, averaging $15,000 to $30,000, was too high, she said.
Due to Logan’s young age and his comfort level in a typical training environment, the Canines 4 Comfort trainer traveled weekly to Graves’ home in Poplar Grove to help the boy and dog adjust. Ozzie provides a calming presence to all who meet him, Graves said.
“You can kind of know when someone needs you,” he said.
When Canines 4 Comfort started, the idea was to help pair dogs with veterans. Veteran first catcher Sonny Pesek of Waukegan has become the organization’s military liaison.
As word spread about the organization and the pandemic, the reach expanded. Along with referrals from therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, families, schools and police departments searched for the dogs.
“People come to us. We don’t have an app on our website because, frankly, I don’t think we can handle the volume,” said Wernli, whose daughter Daria, 19, a junior trainer and service dog ambassador, inspired her to pursue the organization.
Daria Wernli and Chris Olson, the organization’s co-founder and executive director of training, both show dogs, and the idea came from a conversation at a dog show. Among numerous services, Daria’s psychiatric service dog helps her with “blocks” or behavioral interruptions.
“I have seen the life-changing impact of my daughter and her ability to become a successful adult,” Wernli said. “I know that people fight in their own way. If we can help one person be as successful as they have been, then I will have done my job.”
Along with people, dogs have been stationed at the Bartlett, Streamwood and St. Charles police departments, with plans to station dogs soon at the Wheeling and Oakwood Terrace departments. Dog-friendly schools include Greenbriar School and The Cove School in Northbrook, and a dog is expected to be placed soon at Everett Elementary School in Lake Forest.
Maverick, a golden retriever, joined the Bartlett Police Department last year. Officially sworn in in July of last year, the dog lives in the police department, which is staffed 24 hours a day. He has a spot in the records department and joins officers throughout the day both in the office and in the community.
“He has been the best addition to our department,” said Sgt. Tom Alagna, who, with a facility dog coordinator title, is basically one of Maverick’s handlers.
It has been “powerful and impactful” in traumatic situations, especially those involving youth, and has become a valuable asset at community events, Alagna said.
“He’s the star of all the ones we’ve ever had,” he said.
The department was the first to work with Canines 4 Comfort, followed by others. The organization donated the dog and found a sponsor to provide his food.
“I can’t say enough good things about Canines 4 Comfort,” said Alagna. “The benefit is absolutely incredible.”