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Friday, December 6, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Comfort dog that made service-dog handlers uncomfortable at Spokane County Fair returns to training facility for evaluation

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 26, 2019

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)
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 comfort dog that came to Spokane to help people in distress is going back to Illinois, where she was trained, to be evaluated after she made two service-dog handlers at the Spokane County Interstate Fair uncomfortable.

The evaluation may lead to Marie the Comfort Dog’s retraining and return – or it may not, according to David Noll, senior pastor at Spokane Valley’s Redeemer Lutheran Church, which bought the dog from the nonprofit Lutheran Church Charities.

Noll said Redeemer does not have a timeline in mind for Marie’s return to Spokane, if she returns at all.

“Our timeline is whatever is best for Marie,” Noll said.

Lutheran Church Charities, located in Northbrook, Illinois, trained Marie for two years before sending her to Redeemer earlier this year.

During sensory day at the Spokane County Interstate Fair, Marie reportedly lunged and barked at service dogs in two separate incidents .

Doug Weinrich, Redeemer’s minister of servant leader development, was handling Marie that day.

“Marie did bark at dogs, and I did my best to keep everyone safe,” Weinrich said. “I tried to redirect and, you know, dogs bark sometimes.”

The Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service received two complaints about Marie, according to Spokane County spokesman Jared Webley, who noted that the dog was always under the control of the handler and reportedly did not make contact with another person or animal.

The week after the incidents, Emily Vincent and Laura Renz – the service-dog handlers who had bad interactions with Marie – met with leaders from Redeemer to discuss what happened.

“We put a high value on relationship and talking face to face,” Noll said.

“They called after they saw the article in the paper,” Renz said, referring to a previous Spokesman-Review article. “Plus, I left a review on their (Facebook) page.”

Lutheran Church Charities maintains all the comfort dogs’ Facebook pages and Redeemer has no control over what is posted there, Weinrich said.

“I thought it went really well,” said Renz of her meeting with Redeemer leaders. “We talked about what happened. They listened.”

Renz said she didn’t realize the dog had only been at Redeemer Lutheran for a short time.

“She came to a new environment with all these handlers and all these events and she snapped,” Renz said. “I don’t blame her.”

The incident did not do lasting damage to Renz’s service dog, but Renz said she is working with the dog on specific training elements.

“She trusts me. She trusts the environment, but she’s a bit leery of other dogs,” Renz said.

“I think a lot of times the dogs bounce back faster than the handlers do,” she added.

Vincent said her meeting was “somewhat productive.”

“He didn’t want to admit fully that my dog did not cause a scene and that his dog was unprovoked,” Vincent said. “I was happy that they were willing to listen and were open to suggestions.”

Vincent’s dog, Athena, was evaluated by her trainer, who has been focusing on retraining her.

“She does have to rework on focusing so she’s not as concerned when she’s out,” Vincent said.

Redeemer Lutheran purchased Marie from Lutheran Church Charities, which runs a nationwide comfort dog program. To wear the official comfort dog vest, Marie’s 10 handlers were all are required to complete a LCC training program, Weinrich said.

Neither Lutheran Church Charities or Redeemer would provide information on what exactly that training program entailed for Marie and her handlers.

Marie does have her Canine Good Citizen certification, Weinrich said. A Canine Good Citizen Certification tests dogs on 10 skills and is administered by approved evaluators, according to the American Kennel Club website. The certification includes skills like accepting a friendly stranger and reacting appropriately to another dog.

Since the incident, Redeemer Lutheran has worked with Lutheran Church Charities to determine the next steps for Marie.

“We’ve been in conversation with them for the last week and a half since this event happened,” Weinrich said. “And they’ve been very supportive of us and working with us.”

Lutheran Church Charities declined multiple requests to comment on the situation.

Editors Note: This story has been changed to correct the spelling of David Noll’s name.

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