Four Paws of Unconditional Love
by Jane Kendall
Photography by (top) Christian Lee
Hi! My name is Sasha and I am a 3-year-old purebred Golden Retriever. I am no ordinary dog. I was hand-selected from a litter for my extremely gentle nature. At the age of 6-weeks I began my 2,000 hours of specialized training at Lutheran Church Charities in Northbrook, Illinois. I learned specific skills to bring comfort, joy and hope to people in all kinds of stressful situations. In March 2016, at the tender age of 18-months, I finished my training and earned the title of LCC K-9 Comfort Dog. Phil and Brenda Burden, my primary handlers, drove to get me and took me to live with them on Hilton Head Island.
They had also undergone specialized training themselves. They take excellent care of me. They are the Top Dogs. I follow a strict diet, walk four miles every day and brush my teeth twice a day. I get daily baths and regular checkups and grooming. Phil and Brenda handle all of my bookings and maintain the schedule for my substitute handlers. I work five or six days every week. I go to church with them on Sunday. The sign on my vest says PLEASE PET ME! I love my pawsome work!
There are more than 120 dogs like me in the Lutheran Outreach Ministry that provide comfort visits to people in 23 states. We visit hospitals, schools, senior centers, nursing homes and assisted living centers, hospices, charities, community organizations, special needs groups, VA clinics, military bases, airports, and wherever else we are asked to go. We also get deployed with our handlers to areas with crisis situations when requested. Sometimes we get called to disaster locations to help calm victims and workers and give them some love and hope.
When we were allowed to return to Hilton Head Island after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 we visited with victims of the storm and volunteers, who were working to rebuild the community. My first national deployment was in June of 2016. We went to Orlando, along with 10 other dog teams, following the massive Pulse Night Club shooting. We visited the survivors in hospitals and spent time with the first responders.
We also traveled to Umpqua, Oregon, after a campus shooting left 11 people dead. We went to Illinois on two separate occasions. The first time was following a car accident that killed a cheerleader who was going to a football game. The second time was after a plane crash, which killed an entire family, except for a 7-year-old girl. Our most recent trip was back to Orlando after Hurricane Irma. With other dog teams from around the country, we visited churches, schools and Red Cross shelters. Our calming influence makes a difference wherever we go. Our mission is to bring hope and healing. We are so loveable! It’s all about love, always.
We have regular daily schedules for visits in our local communities. Sometimes we go to as many as four locations in one day. Today my handlers took me to Savannah. Our first stop was the VA outpatient clinic. My job was to provide love to the veterans anxiously waiting in line for their appointments. Next we stopped at the airport to provide cheer to people waiting to hop onto their planes. I am an “Ambassa-Dog” there. I even have my own TSA clearance badge!
Since I started my job, Brenda says I have comforted more than 38,000 people. I have my own e-mail address, Instagram and Twitter accounts. Children like to send me e-mails, and I answer them, with the help of Phil and Brenda. My Facebook page (Sasha Comfort Dog) has more than 6,000 followers. Check it out if you want to see what I have been doing. I even have my own business cards.
This is what Phil and Brenda have to say: “Our volunteer work is about ministry. Sasha is a bridge to offer the mercy and compassion of Jesus to the people we encounter.” We are available to speak to groups and organizations and schedule visits for Sasha. We welcome the opportunity.
Top Dogs: Phil and Brenda Burden, my handlers.
Call: 843 363-5435
Visit: Island Lutheran Church, 4400 Main Street, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926
Log On: www.islandlutheran.org/comfort-dog/comfort-dog-ministry/