Bringing a Dog’s Love to Homeless Teens

Daily Point of Light # 6421 Dec 26, 2018
Dennis Morner and his dog Max./ Courtesy Dennis Morner

Max and Nyxie take their volunteer roles very seriously.  The two beefy black labs are members of National Crisis Response Canines, a non-profit that trains canines and their owners to provide safe compassionate support to people in crisis. The compassionate labs let their owner Dennis Morner get involved too.  The trio have been volunteering at Covenant House Alaska for close to two years, serving youth experiencing homelessness in the Anchorage area. Max and Nyxie’s mission (with Dennis’ help) is to harness the power of the human and canine bond to inspire resilience and recovery in people affected by crisis, trauma or disaster, and the responders who help them. Dennis, a retired minister, spends time every week with the organization’s youth and staff, responding to traumatic experiences as they arise. The trio also work with other local non-profits, using the healing power of the dog’s unconditional love and acceptance to make a difference.   

Dennis is committed to making a difference in his community and he is today’s Daily Point of Light Award honorees. Points of Light spoke with him about his commitment to service.

What inspires you to volunteer?

Wanting to make a difference in peoples’ lives!  As a pastor for 35 years I helped people as a response to all God has done for me.  After retirement I wanted to expand beyond the church and into the community. I discovered that using Max, my oldest black Labrador, was a wonderful way to open doors for me with strangers and help people.  I had him registered as a therapy dog and began visiting a local hospital and working with a grief recovering program for children and youth through Hospice of Anchorage.  I was then invited to be part of six canine teams training to become the first NATIONAL in Alaska.

I have been amazed and humbled by the impact Max and Nyxie (my younger dog) have on victims, first responders, and others.  We are now working with Covenant House, and Rights of Passage, the organization’s transitional living program that addresses the long-term needs of at-risk, runaway and homeless kids. It is an incredible privilege to hear their stories and provide some assistance in their journey, even in a small way.

Dennis Morner with Nyxie and a teen in need./Courtesy Dennis Morner

Describe your volunteer role.

At Covenant House, Nyxie and I visit several times a month.  I usually let Nyxie lead the way and interact with the young adults sitting on the floor or in a chair.  Nyxie is great at simply loving whoever she’s working with.  Her presence calms and sometimes as they are petting her, stories come out.  It may be sharing what they’ve been through in life, struggles with finding work, loneliness, joy at a new accomplishment, talking about the pets they miss. More than anything it’s just listening; letting them know someone cares about them as a person. There is initially a hesitancy, even a wall, between me and the individual. Nyxie is able to immediately bridge it, and then over time the person begins to trust and share their story. My role also includes supporting staff through the love my canine provides, sharing at least a little of the burden they carry, laughing with them, and sometimes just talking about life.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work? 

It begins with the smile on their faces when they see Nyxie coming up to them tail wagging and eyes eager.  There’s the gentle warmth of seeing the young people snuggling with her. I’ve seen children, youth, and adults curl up with, hug, and cry into my canines.  Sometimes they will just sit there, slowly petting, looking into their eyes, and I see the tension melt away. There are few things better in life to know I’ve made a meaningful difference in a young person’s life.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I have been amazed to see my canines, especially Max, detect a person in crisis and glue himself to them. He comforts and becomes their protector. I’ve learned that I don’t need to have all the answers as long as I am willing to just listen.  If they don’t feel like talking, I’ve learned to be at peace with silence knowing that our presence is enough.

I also had to learn that I can’t reach or touch every hurting person.  I only need to be concerned about the person God has put in my path at that moment.  When I allow myself to focus on just that one person, amazing things happen. I’ve also learned there are an incredible number of good and caring people in our world.  The staff of Covenant House is awesome in working with young people, many who aren’t easy to work with.

To keep from becoming burned out or frustrated I’ve been taught that others pain and problems are not mine.  I can’t solve them or take them away.  This provides tremendous freedom to be present in even the most difficult situation.

Dennis Morner’s dogs Max, and Nyxie, (center) are registered therapy dogs and certified NATIONAL Crisis Response Canines, and Tik (L) is Dennis’ wife’s dog Tik, a certified therapy dog./Courtesy Dennis Morner

Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?

I’m excited to continue working with Rights of Passage at Covenant House.  In the community there are always new opportunities presenting themselves. 

Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?  

I don’t believe we were created to just care about ourselves, our immediate families and close friends.  There are so many hurting people who only need someone to be there for them … not to solve their problems but to listen, encourage, and help them identify the next step in their journey. When I decided to retire, I told my congregation I was simply moving into another vocation. This has allowed me to meet so many new people and touch so many lives.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

Virtually every day, each one of us have people entering our lives who need a warm smile, a word of encouragement, a listening ear.  Just stop and take time for that one person. 

We all have unique talents and abilities to share with others. As we give, we also receive back in ways that enrich our own lives. Through my volunteering I have developed some incredible friendships and memories that will be with me the rest of my life. None of us can change the world, but each of us can make a difference in our little corner of that world.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Dennis? Visit All for Good for local volunteer opportunities.

Post written by Beth D’Addono. 


Brenda Solis