‘She brings a lot of joy’: Cornerstone Lutheran Church commissions golden retriever to spread comfort, smiles


Magdalene is a vital member of Cornerstone Lutheran Church. On Sundays, she can be found among the congregation at any of Cornerstone’s four locations, including Carmel and Fishers. She serves as an ambassador for the church in its community ministry efforts, and her calming demeanor comforts those mourning or traumatized. Even those who have never met her are drawn to her.

Visit Cornerstone’s website, and her photo is among those in the staff directory. Her’s is easy to distinguish from the others. Magdalene is only 2 years old. And she’s a golden retriever.

In February, after undergoing rigorous training, Magdalene was commissioned to serve Cornerstone Lutheran by Lutheran Church Charities as part of its K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry. Magdalene is one of 130 Golden Retrievers trained and commissioned by LCC to serve churches in 27 states.

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Magdalene is a comfort dog for Cornerstone Lutheran Church. (Photo by Adam Seif)

Magdalene stays busy. She has 10 human handlers and two caregiver families with whom she lives who care for her and get her to appointments, whether at a hospice facility or preschool, fire and police departments, local events or deployments to areas in crisis, including recent mass shootings in Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn.

She works six days a week, typically attending two or three functions a day. But she also enjoys her time off, said Jane Callahan, a Westfield resident and the “Top Dog” coordinator of Cornerstone’s comfort dog ministry.

“She’s a lot of fun,” Callahan said. “When her (work) vest is off, she’s a dog. She loves her ‘stuffies’ (stuffed animals). She loves to run and play. When a staff member runs with her, it’s hilarious to see them go at it.”

A message printed on Magdalene’s vest encourages those who approach her to pet her. Golden retrievers have a reputation for being gentle, smart and intuitive. Callahan noted that Golden retrievers oftentimes look like they are smiling, making them more approachable. Magdalene, like the other dogs in the Lutheran Church Charities comfort dog program, has been trained to respond to commands and has been observed to ensure she has the right disposition for the job.

“We take her to preschools, and kids lay all over her, and she doesn’t care,” Callahan said.

The process of obtaining Magdalene took more than a year of interviews and training. Magdalene’s handlers and caregiver families traveled to the LCC headquarters in Northbrook, Ill., for 40 hours of instruction.

The dog’s training was much more extensive than that. Lutheran Church Charities, which established the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry in 2008, starts working with purebred golden retrievers when they are 8 weeks old, said Deb Baran, director of communications for LCC. Magdalene went through about 2,000 hours of training before she was commissioned to work. Dogs that don’t seem to have the demeanor or focus for the job are placed with loving families, Baran said.

Golden retrievers make for good working comfort dogs because they are so trainable, Baran said.

“Part of their disposition is to learn and be trained,” she said. “They like to do what they are being asked to do.”

Cornerstone Lutheran Church’s comfort dog program is funded through donations, and there’s no charge for Magdalene’s services. Caring for her is a church community effort.

Magdalene’s primary caregiver family is Bob and Nicole Lewis, who moved to Carmel from Columbus, Ind., about six years ago. They have three young adult children. The family did not have a pet, and when Cornerstone began the process of establishing a comfort dog ministry, they filled out a multiple-page application and were interviewed and visited in their home to make sure they and Magdalene were the right fit for each other.

Nicole Lewis called their decision to care for Magdalene “one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.”

“It’s exceeded my expectations,” she said. “She’s a great dog. The response to her has been so positive, so amazing. She brings a lot of joy to our lives, too.”

A child pets Magdalene, Cornerstone Lutheran Church’s comfort dog. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Inspired by Katrina

Lutheran Church Charities’ idea for a comfort dog program was born out of a natural disaster.

When Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in August 2005, members of LCC were part of the response. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency found that residents were refusing to leave their flooded homes because they couldn’t take their pets, LCC was asked to step in and take the animals and their humans by boats to safety.

“That’s when our president saw the bond between humans and pets,” said Deb Baran, director of communications for the Northbrook, Ill.-based LCC.

The LCC’s K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry was established in 2008. The organization trains and commissions purebred golden retrievers to serve churches through the program. Cornerstone Lutheran Church, with Carmel and Fishers among its four Indianapolis area locations, joined the ministry in February when Magdalene, a 2-year-old golden retriever, was commissioned for work.

The dogs in the ministry serve as ambassadors for LCC’s outreach efforts, whether dispatched to the scene of a mass shooting or making an appearance at a community event.

“These dogs really serve as that bridge for our people to connect with people,” Baran said. “We know people have lots of stresses, things going on in their lives. We’re there not only in times of crisis but in times of joy as well.”