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The right touch: Pastor's therapy dog part of Cottage Grove church ministry

All Saints Lutheran Church Pastor Jules Erickson with Cooper, a "Goldendoodle," a mix of golden retriever and poodle, on the church steps in Cottage Grove. Cooper is a therapy dog. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner

If there are stuffed animals on the floor in the hallway of the All Saints Lutheran Church offices, it's Monday.

That's the day that Pastor Jules Erickson brings her dog, Cooper, to work.

Part golden retriever and standard poodle, Cooper loves his stuffed animals, Erickson said. He also makes loving connections with humans as a therapy dog.

But there's more to it that just being a friendly canine and good companion.

When Erickson first came to All Saints, she brought her dog, Cos, with her. As a service dog for handicapped people, Cos did not excel, Erickson said. Rather than saying he didn't pass the tests, Erickson said Cos "had a career change" to becoming a therapy dog.

"He wanted to visit everyone," she said -- except the person he was assigned to.

Before Cos died, Cooper's "calming energy" had a soothing effect on the dog.

Both Erickson and Cooper are members of the Delta Society and are certified as a therapy duo. She carries her Delta certification and identification, and official documents for Cooper as well, when they visit nursing homes, residential homes or other places they are needed.

Erickson has a "gentle lead," a collar Cooper wears on his head and neck while he's working.

"He's completely calm and shifts gears when he's working," she said "He looks around and is completely in tune with me."

Part of the effect Cooper can have on people they visit is well known. When humans stroke a cat or dog, their blood pressure lowers and they activate the hormone oxytocin. It produces a sense of well-being, calmness and is known to be involved in healing.

The rest of what Cooper brings is harder to isolate. If he's helping people to heal, it would be hard to prove, but Erickson believes it's possible. There's an exchange of "energy," she said.

Cooper and Erickson go through Delta certification every two years. The dog must remain calm in crowds and be unfazed when hearing the sounds of clattering walkers, canes and even people shouting.

During certification, another dog was introduced but Cooper didn't react even when he was bumped from behind. If Erickson drops his leash, Cooper must stay put. He also can't react if a stranger puts a hand in his mouth or in his ears.

Cooper is "exuberantly joyful," she said. "I can take him into any institution. It's a fantastic outreach."

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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