- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 13, 2016

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - When Jennifer Dahn answered the call to help the recovery effort at a tornado disaster area in Washington in November 2013, she had no idea she was about to get a vision that would result in smiles and encouragement for thousands of people across Central Illinois.

During her volunteer work, she was deeply moved as she witnessed how therapy/comfort dogs visiting with tornado victims could elevate some of the lowest of spirits. In those moments, the inspiration for PawPrint Ministries was born.

Dahn returned to Decatur, ignited with a passion to start a faith-based comfort dog ministry that would bless her hometown and expand outward. Just five months later, in April 2014, she had turned her faith into fruition, founding PawPrint Ministries with her husband, Mike.

Since then, Jennifer and her team of dog handlers have visited people of diverse demographics, from terminal cancer patients to disaster victims, with the intent of touching lives through the empathy and compassion of their registered therapy dogs.

“When my dog comes into that psych ward, he can do things for those patients that no medication can do,” Dahn asserted. On more than one occasion, nurses have been surprised to witness patients who have been unresponsive for long periods of time, suddenly talk or move after a sight or touch of a PawPrint golden retriever.



The ministry has earned a growing following and they often see fans at nursing homes and assisted living facilities waiting at the entrance, eagerly anticipating their monthly arrival.

“When my dog approaches a situation, he doesn’t judge, he doesn’t speak, he just comes in with compassion, and that’s so often what they need. My dog is a bridge that allows that person to come and sit next to me,” explained Dahn about the abilities of her dogs.

She said that a benefit to being a faith-based organization is they are able to share the love of Jesus with those who are feeling the world crumbling around them. Their deployment to residential areas devastated by straight-line winds in Quincy in July was one of their more dramatic steps of faith. The team brought the kind-hearted presence of their dogs to those dealing with the physical and emotional toll of the disaster and provided relief, or at least a distraction, from the destruction.

During their time there, the team was informed of a woman whose husband passed away the previous day from health issues unrelated to the storms. The ministry received affirmation of the value of their work when their empathetic-dog visit evoked a teary-eyed smile and several hugs from the mourning woman.

The group also focuses on outreach for people in non-life-threatening situations, such as teaching Girl Scouts about serving the community and giving preschoolers a fun break with the dogs. One of the newest manifestations of their mission is “Dog Church” for people with special needs at Macon Resources Inc. They offer a brief monthly service of singing, a message and prayers, along with interactions before and after with the dogs. The meeting has quickly become popular since its October inception.

More than faith is growing at the ministry. From September 2014 to today they have expanded from one registered therapy dog to six, with some having specialized focuses such as wounded warriors, veterans and sexual assault victims. It wasn’t by the group’s design that all but one of the dogs is a golden retriever, it just happened.

Their calm, gentle demeanors and easily trained personalities make them ideal candidates for the job. People who love this particular breed have gravitated toward the volunteer work at PawPrint, including trained handler Regan Deering. Her dog, JJ, is a golden retriever that came from the same breeders who provided dogs appearing in the Air Bud film franchise.

Deering encountered the ministry at a community cookout for those in need and was so impressed that she earned the qualifications to join the organization. Deering said her active volunteer role stems from taking pleasure in the joy that the dogs bring to the community.

The handlers have found a deeper connection with their dogs over the course of a year or more. They’ve worked together through challenging and inspiring visits, while building an intuitive relationship through regular training.

“At first he was just one of the dogs in PawPrint Ministries, but he now has come into my heart and my husband’s heart and he sleeps on our bed,” vice president and dog handler Judy Koshinski said with a laugh about her comfort dog, Eli.

Jennifer Dahn goes almost everywhere with her dog, Payton, even church. She trains with him twice a week, working on continuing skills. “He knows when I’m anxious . when I’m excited. He knows how to keep me calm. I think we work very well together as a team,” she said.

More has been accomplished in the first year and a half of the ministry than Dahn could have imagined. She said optimistically that she can’t even fathom where they’ll be five years from now as their services are currently expanding. The nonprofit group has seen an outpouring of support from the community.

At their “Pennies for the Paws” fundraiser, they were moved at the great lengths many young contributors went to support their mission. One case in particular was a grade school student who turned in a bag of change and proudly told them he was giving away all of his saved money for the dogs.

They have also experienced a growing need for their comfort dog services. The organization is looking for more handlers and plans to train additional teams to keep up with the demand. They see the potential for growth nationally, with one dog in Benson, Minnesota, already added to the Decatur-based ministry.

Dahn said that the joy and smiles she has witnessed over the past year and a half of working with comfort dogs has given her a feeling that is “indescribable.”

However, when asked about her outlook for the future of PawPrint Ministries, Dahn’s words were exact: “The sky’s the limit.”

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Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, https://bit.ly/22yxUfm

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