Rachel Bender and ZoeyRachel Bender, pictured with Zoey the Comfort Dog, is a junior majoring in special education. She is one of eight students who make up the inaugural cohort studying for CUW's new Compassion Care Certificate.

Eight CUW students—along with Zoey the Comfort Dog—are blazing a new trail in pursuing the new Compassion Care Certificate.

Zoey the Concordia Comfort Dog will be getting some new handlers this semester, as eight students are starting the new Compassion Care Certificate program. A joint effort of the School of Education and the Athletic Training program, the certificate is a 12-credit, four-course curriculum, which starts with an introduction to comfort dog handling: Comfort Dog Handler Training and Skill Development (EDG 5300).

“It’s learning how to handle a trained dog, and have experience working with that dog, throughout a semester,” said Dave Enters, counseling center director, course instructor, and Zoey’s chief handler. “Additionally, there will be reading assignments and study, as well as discussions and papers to write about your experience. It’s all designed to introduce a student to utilizing a trained dog in a work setting.”

Instruction for this class will actually begin prior to the start of regular fall classes, as each student will get some valuable one-on-one time with Zoey. To complete the certificate, students will take two more classes—EDG 5301: Trauma Informed Practices and EDG 5302: Social Emotional Learning—before moving on to complete a Comfort Dog Practicum (EDG 5303) requirement.

Canine Comfort

All in all, it’s a very robust program—one of only a few such programs in the country—that will equip students to use trained dogs in classroom and therapy settings to help students deal with anxiety and trauma.

“Even as we’re dealing with what we hope are the end stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still so many kids who are dealing with anxiety and depression and a variety of different types of trauma,” said Nicole Muth, elementary education department chair at CUW.

“Research shows that when you’re working with a dog, there’s something about petting a dog that allows a child to just open up and talk more about something they’re dealing with.”

Interaction with a dog can also help children who are having difficult behaviors, she added. It can even help kids who are struggling with reading anxiety. Children who have trouble reading out loud to adults often do much better when they’re asked to read to a dog.

“With Zoey we have gone out to Saukville Elementary and worked with a reading specialist there,” Muth said. “Kids will pet Zoey and read to her, which has helped a lot with kids dealing with anxiety with their reading skills.”

Rachel Bender, a junior majoring in special education, said she is looking forward to having a dog in her classroom one day “to help students who have dealt with loss, or family issues, or just working with them to make them calmer and be able to perform well academically and throughout the school day.”

Education and Beyond

As plans unfold to add an additional comfort dog to the Concordia team, additional spots will likely open for more students. For now, the initial cohort is limited to eight (it’s all Zoey can handle at once!), with students in athletic training, special ed, early childhood, elementary, and secondary education all represented.

In the meantime, Muth said, students can also to train to become a Compassion Care “ministry partner,” who would receive a lot of the same training, but not necessarily learn to handle the dog.

“The ministry partner would walk along with the handler, they just wouldn’t be the one holding the leash,” she explained. “They would be the one that would do more of the interacting with the person. So you’ve got one person focused more on the dog, and one person focused more on the person’s needs.”

In the end, it’s all about our mission of preparing students to be Christ’s light in the world.

“It’s very exciting to think about preparing our students with this kind of training, to go into a school setting and help students in a very unique way,” Enters said. “When they combine their training with an intimate human interaction, that’s where ministry happens. And that’s where they’ll see how meaningful a moment like that can be.”

For more information about the Compassion Care Certificate at CUW, please email Nicole Muth at nicole.muth@cuw.edu.


— This story is written by Mike Zimmerman, corporate communications manager for Concordia University Wisconsin. He may be reached at michael.zimmerman@cuw.edu or 262-243-4380.

If this story has inspired you, why not explore how you can help further Concordia's mission through giving.