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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I love the dog so much’: Youths who are homeless find comfort in Lutheran nonprofit’s new comfort dog

Will Flath, who said he has been homeless for most of the summer, pets Marie the Comfort dog on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, outside Cup of Cool Water: Homeless Youth Services Spokane in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

As people dashed up the stairs at Cup of Cool Water on Monday night and reached the Christian nonprofit that serves youths who are homeless in downtown Spokane, the first thing many of them did was stop and say “hi” to Marie, pat her on the head and give her a scratch or even a hug.

Marie was the most popular girl of the night, and she happens to be a mellow golden retriever.

“I love the dog so much,” said Will Flath, a 22-year-old who is homeless.

Will called Cup of Cool Water “a sanctuary” for youths who are homeless. It’s a place where they can have a meal, wash their clothes, take a shower and learn life skills from the staff.

Flath said he would have a dog himself if he felt like he could take care of it.

“Right now, it’s just a process taking care of myself,” Flath said.

Seeing Marie is a way to have a normal connection that can be hard to find when you’re homeless, Flath said.

Marie is a comfort dog from Lutheran Church Charities. Redeemer Lutheran Church started the process to apply for a comfort dog more than two years ago, said Doug Weinrich, minister of servant leader development.

Weinrich said Marie is the first Lutheran Church Charities comfort dog in the Northwest. The group launched its comfort dog program in 2008. The dogs receive a minimum of 2,000 hours of training and are placed at churches, schools and other Lutheran programs.

The group’s more than 130 comfort dogs live in more than 27 states and often travel with their handlers to the sites of natural disasters and are trained to handle crisis response.

The dogs are not technically service dogs because they work with multiple handlers and caregivers, Weinrich said.

In the six weeks that Redeemer Lutheran has been home to Marie, her handlers have tested out a variety of events.

“It’s where the handler’s interests are and what they’re involved in,” handler John Blykert said. “I’ve been volunteering here for a year, so it’s just a natural thing.”

One of Marie’s first big events is set for Saturday at Unity in the Community in Riverfront Park, where she will be at the comfort dog booth.

An official passing-of-the-vest ceremony to officially welcome Marie and signify her placement is set for both Redeemer Lutheran services on Sunday, with comfort dogs and their handlers from across the West Coast flying in to celebrate.

A 27-person team from the church – including handlers, administrators and the family Marie lives with – will also be commissioned as the comfort dog team.

Blykert brought Marie to Cup of Cool Water for the first time a couple weeks ago and said it was a success.

“People can tend to let their guards down,” Blykert said.

She’s a good listener, keeps everything confidential and has the bonus of being soft and furry, Blykert said.

Marie doesn’t just help the young adults but also the staff, including David Castro, a youth advocate.

“We’re both benefiting from her presence,” Castro said of Marie.

The dog adds an extra positive interaction with the youths who are homeless, he said.

“Normally, we can’t have dogs here, but thankfully the church spends so much and time resources that we can have her here safely,” Castro said.

Through Cup of Cool Water, Flath has made friends, including one who he calls the “yin to his yang.”

Jacob Munura is from Texas and has been living on the streets of Spokane since May.

“We’re almost the same age, and I feel like we can learn from each other,” he said. “Just because we’re homeless, doesn’t mean we have to live like trash.”

Both men said that Cup’s drop-in hours help them get through what can be difficult lives lived largely without shelter.

“This place is a real big help to me,” Munura said.

He considers himself a dog person and loves the term, “Man’s best friend.”

“They interact on the emotional level,” Munura said of dogs like Marie.