After a months long break due to COVID-19, a special staff member at Immanuel Lutheran Church is slowly getting back into her ministry.
Sheba is a Lutheran Church Charities K-9 comfort dog. Her job is to provide comfort and a furry healing touch to everyone from schoolchildren to nursing home residents, which are two of her most-visited groups — and two of the first groups to restrict outsider access when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March.
For three months following COVID-19, Sheba was mostly quarantined with one of her handlers, church members who volunteer to take Sheba to her visits, with only two exceptions: a drive-thru parade for the students of Immanuel Lutheran, where Sheba stood with staff in the welcoming line, and a young woman’s visitation, where Sheba had been requested.
“We felt that was a priority, but we took many precautions,” Deaconess Kelly Hardt, who is one of Sheba’s handlers, said. At the visitation, Sheba and her handler stayed in a separate room, could only be visited one at a time, and required masks and hand sanitizer before and after.
“It was heartbreaking,” Susie Blatt, a handler who has been with Sheba since the golden retriever came to Washington in 2016, said. “We know how meaningful and comforting (the visits) are to our regular people. During COVID-19, that’s when they especially needed to see her.”
Sheba has around 3,800 followers on her Facebook page, and not long into the pandemic the comments started to trickle in from people who were missing her. Her handlers tried to update it daily to make people feel connected and also sent physical cards to Sheba’s friends at the schools and nursing homes. In the early days, handlers sometimes attached the cards to gifts for first responders and essential workers.
“It was important throughout this to be there even though we couldn’t be there,” Blatt said. “The cards were a message that they haven’t been forgotten.”
The handlers were sometimes worried that Sheba would forget some of her training or grow anxious at the lack of social interaction during the time off, but they said she handled quarantine well.
Sheba is slowly getting back to her pre-COVID-19 schedule. Immanuel Lutheran is holding in-person classes, so twice a week students can apply hand sanitizer before petting Sheba.
Hardt recalls seeing the joy in people’s eyes when Sheba first returned to some homebound members of the church. When she was allowed into The Homestead at Hickory View again, one resident couldn’t leave her bed but managed to reach her hand down to pat Sheba’s head.
“In the times we’re living in, people need comfort, and she provides comfort,” Hardt said. “And our ministry is about sharing the comfort of Jesus Christ and reminding people that even though things are crazy right now, they’re not alone.”