Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Comfort dog makes some service-dog handlers uncomfortable

Will Flath, who said he has been homeless or 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, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A dog who came to Spokane to provide comfort to people in distress is now drawing criticism from area service-dog handlers who say the animal has been aggressive and that its handlers have been unresponsive to their concerns.

Redeemer Lutheran Church brought Marie the Comfort Dog to Spokane a month ago from an Illinois training center, after working for two years to get the dog through Lutheran Church Charities.

Doug Weinrich, Redeemer’s minister of servant leader development, told The Spokesman-Review that Marie received more than 2,000 hours of training before Lutheran Church Charities sent Marie to Spokane, where she became the denomination’s first comfort dog in the Northwest.

Neither Lutheran Church Charities nor members of Redeemer’s 27-person comfort dog team responded to multiple requests for comment for this story.

After less than a month of service, Marie the Comfort Dog had several confrontations with other service dogs during sensory day at the Spokane County Interstate Fair on Tuesday.

The first sensory day was designed for individuals with disabilities and people who are sensitive to environmental factors. Resources were available in Bay 3 at the fairgrounds, including a booth for Marie.

Emily Vincent attended the fair specifically for sensory day and was accompanied by her service dog, Athena, and her 17-year-old daughter, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

They had been at the fair for about an hour when they decided to visit the resource booths.

“I didn’t even notice that there was a therapy dog on the right side,” Vincent said.

That’s when she heard a loud noise of a dog barking, growling and scrambling.

It was Marie lunging toward Athena.

Marie’s handlers attempted to calm her down but after about five minutes they “dragged” her out of the bay, Vincent said.

“It just sucks because I was there for my daughter,” Vincent said. “She can’t handle loud noises.”

Vincent left the fair a bit shaken almost immediately after the incident, but with the understanding that Marie would be removed from the fair, she said.

“I didn’t think it was an issue initially because I was told the dog was going to be removed,” Vincent said.

Holly Lytle, founder of the Isaac Foundation, was at her booth a few feet away.

While she didn’t see the incident occur she did see the aftermath. There was “just that upset dog sound and then the handlers took her out,” she said.

After a while outside, Marie was back at the booth with her handlers.

That’s when Laura Renz entered the area with her service dog, Little One, an 85-pound chocolate Labrador.

The fair isn’t something Renz would normally attend but “one of the reasons I went was to see Marie the Comfort Dog.”

“I heard some noises,” Renz said. “It sounded like a chair scraping on the floor.”

She later was told the noises were a low growl from Marie, but since Renz is hard of hearing she was unable to identify the sound.

Renz turned to head toward Marie’s booth.

“I approached and kept my service dog behind me because that’s protocol,” Renz said.

That’s when Marie tried to scramble at both Renz and her dog.

“I said, ‘Oh my god, what’s wrong with your dog?’ ” Renz recalled. “And the lady said she’s only dog aggressive not people aggressive.”

Marie was eventually removed, Renz said.

“I was shaking and I was pretty upset,” Renz said. “My dog didn’t react but I could tell he was shaken.”

Renz’s main concern was her service dog’s reaction.

“She’s my lifeline for balance and things,” Renz said. “It sets their training back.”

Throughout the incident, Renz said she tried to engage with Marie’s handlers.

“The lady didn’t care at all,” she said.

A few booths over, Lytle heard commotion for a second time. This incident was different, with fewer people around since it was late in the afternoon.

“The second person was wanting to engage the handlers during the situation,” Lytle said.

Renz then called fair security and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department, which already had deputies stationed at the fair. The deputies asked bystanders including Lytle what happened before referring the issue to the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service (SCRAPS).

“I would never want to see her put to sleep over this,” Lytle said.

Days later, Vincent is still dealing with the effects of the incident. Her service dog began showing signs of agitation and regression, which meant Athena can no longer work until she is evaluated by her trainer, Vincent said.

“She’s kept me from falling,” Vincent said. “I haven’t had any falls since she’s been working. It just sucks.”

A longtime local dog trainer, Carol Byrnes, acknowledged that an incident like this could take a service dog out of commission.

“We all feel great going out in public until we’re mugged, and then we see the world differently,” Byrnes said. “If it happens again and again it can certainly affect their job.”

A service dog goes through years of training both individually and with their handler before often being certified.

“A dog who has been carefully trained is monumental to these people,” Byrnes said. “Their sense of safety and security can be blasted by being attacked by another dog over and over again.”

Fair officials are still gathering information about the incident, said spokeswoman Erin Gurtel. Service dogs with identification are welcome at the fair, Gurtel said.

Both Vincent and Renz contacted authorities and Lutheran Church Charities. They also posted reviews on the Marie the Comfort Dog Facebook page, but all reviews on the page have since been removed.

Through Facebook, the women found Sally Schiller, who had a run-in with Marie at the Sept. 7 Out of the Darkness Spokane Walk for suicide prevention.

In a public Facebook post Schiller wrote, “All of a sudden their dog was growling, snarling, like it wanted to rip something or someone to shreds. They had to drag it out of the building snarling and growling. The man got in my face, telling me to keep my dog away, theirs is a puppy and just learning.”

Lutheran Church Charities is a national organization that trains and places comfort dogs as part of their charitable work.

Their comfort dogs receive a minimum of 2,000 hours of training; however, they are not technically service dogs because they work with multiple handlers and caregivers, Weinrich from Redeemer Lutheran said in a previous interview.

Redeemer Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley applied for Marie over two years ago and she had her official receiving-of-the-vest ceremony on Aug. 18.

Editors note: This story has been changed to clarify that service dogs are not required by the American with Disabilities Act to complete a certification. The Lutheran Church Charities training center is in Northbrook, Illinois.