Once upon a time in Virginia, there was a little girl who was afraid of dogs. A cousin’s collie jumped up on her, and another cousin’s Golden Retriever puppy nipped at her, and two big dogs came running into her yard and chased her, and—well, you get the picture. I didn’t get off to a good start with dogs, at all.
Meanwhile, I grew up with cats, or rather with one cat at a time. The first was a birthday present from a friend in the neighborhood. I think my mother would have gladly sent the kitten right back again, but the sight of my excitement prevailed and we kept him. He grew into a fine big fellow, so tough that the neighborhood dogs, who still frightened me, would not come into our yard for fear of a right cross from the cat’s paw!
The first breakthrough happened with an aging Golden Retriever who nuzzled me with his graying muzzle. I realize now he must have been that same heel-nipper who tried to climb up the playset after me so many years before. Gentle and slow-moving, he had retired from his work as a hunting companion and spent his days holding down a rug, waiting for “his” children to come home from school.
But it would be many years until I really made friends with a dog, a chocolate lab named Russell Stover. Russell is such a good boy that he made all our family want to have a dog of our own.
At the time, I was commuting to Andover Newton, staying out of town one night a week. I told the children we could get a puppy when I graduated, since it would be too difficult to manage before that time and not fair to the dog. I thought I knew what having a dog would be like, but I really didn’t.
Snowman, who was 10 or 11, asked what kind of dog we would get. From the time I got over my fear of dogs, I always imagined myself with a Golden Retriever, but now we loved Labs, too. Snowman was not satisfied with either choice. He had a feeling there was another kind of dog out there for us. I got him a book of dog breeds and he began to study.
We brainstormed a list of qualities that mattered to us:
- Good with children
- Good with other pets
- Big enough not to be intimidated by the cats
- Doesn’t need a huge amount of exercise (in other words, not a herding dog!)
- Low maintenance on the grooming
- Not inclined to bark all the time
Pure Luck, who was very much involved in our lives by this time, but not actually a family member yet, became part of the conversation and suggested some of these. Unfortunately, the barking prohibition ruled out his favorite breed, according to our book.
One day, Snowman came to me and said, “I found our dog!”
He showed me an adorable picture of a puppy that looked more like a stuffed animal than a real dog.
“Look, mom! These dogs have everything we want! They’re big! They aren’t barkers! They love kids and other animals! They don’t need lots of exercise!”
“That’s great, honey,” I answered. “But I’ve never laid eyes on a Bernese Mountain Dog!”
By the time she was six months old or so, Molly began to limp. We took her to the vet, but everyone thought she had soft-tissue injuries of one sort and another. By eight months, it was bad enough that we took a series of x-rays and discovered to our great sorrow that she had very bad joints, a risk for Bernese Mountain Dogs. Suddenly, I needed to learn a lot more about the breed!
We took care of Molly through two surgeries, one on a hip and the other for her elbows. Pure Luck patiently rehabbed her with short walks that gradually increased in length. He carried her then 75 pound self up and down stairs until we were able to get a ramp for our back steps. Although the surgeries helped some of her most severe symptoms, nothing can take away the arthritis that had already developed in her left hip and both elbows.
Meanwhile, I was reading up on the breed, and I found an e-mail group for people who love Bernese Mountain Dogs. My primary interest was orthopedic problems and how to deal with them.
But something else grabbed my interest as Molly recovered and began to get out and socialize again at the beach and the dog park. Someone asked, “Have you considered using Molly for therapy work?”
I remembered e-mails about therapy dogs, and I went back to do some research. We got Molly into an obedience class and later she took and passed the Canine Good Citizen test sponsored by the American Kennel Club.
I discovered at least three national organizations that certify dogs for Therapy work:
Each has a different way of evaluating a dog to see if he or she is suited to therapy work.
It’s not service work, of course, such as a seeing-eye dog might do. And it’s not assistance work, either, in which a dog is trained to help with certain tasks or to be aware of certain symptoms in an owner who has a seizure disorder or diabetes.
A therapy dog’s job is to make you feel good.
We spent three Wednesday afternoons at a nursing home for Molly’s evaluation. On the first day we met the evaluator outside the nursing home and Molly passed a basic obedience quiz in the parking lot. She always seems to know when she is “on duty,” and she did all the tasks patiently, responsively and thoroughly. I had to show that she would sit and lie down, walk with me nicely, heel with a loose leash and greet a stranger in a friendly fashion. She had to do the same with the evaluator’s dog, although not be TOO friendly. This was not playtime!
We then spent an hour inside the nursing home, following the evaluator and her dog, to see how Molly would respond to different situations.
She did well on each of her three visits and passed the test!
We went through the process although I knew that since I hoped Molly would be a partner in my ministry, her work with me wouldn’t count as “therapy” work, which has to be done by a volunteer. The purpose for joining the different organizations is to acquire insurance for the volunteer who owns the pet. Since I bring Molly into the work environment, I would be personally liable for any damage she might cause, not Therapy Dogs, Inc, nor the church where I work. But I wanted my church folks to know that she had been evaluated by an established program and been deemed an appropriate dog for therapy work.
Molly’s work as a ministry dog has taken several forms.
First, she went with me to visit people in nursing homes or in their own homes, if invited. I’ve found that people enjoy seeing her; for the very elderly, she brings back memories of their own beloved pets and because she is good-sized, she is fairly easy to pet from a bed or a wheelchair. When I plan to take her to a nursing home or other care facility, I always call ahead to be sure she is welcome and to be sure I have the correct paperwork available. Usually I am asked only for verification of a rabies shot. Molly is happy to visit lots of people at once, but I try to keep nursing home visits short because the temperature in them is usually uncomfortably warm for her.
Second, I sometimes bring Molly to the office with me. At Small Church, she was a frequent visitor to the Nursery School, where she could sometimes be seen lying on the rug in the middle of a pile of 3 and 4 year olds. I have seldom known an animal as patient as she is.
Third, Molly participated in church events where possible. She often came along to Youth Group gatherings, and for the past three years she joined the church’s intergenerational caroling group in visiting area nursing homes. Wroo wroo all the way!
Finally, and this is Molly’s personal favorite part of her ministry, Molly came to church on many, many Sundays. It started with a Children’s Message, just before she took the Canine Good Citizen test. Pure Luck brought her to church and waited in the vestibule. When she heard me giving the Call to Worship, she called right back! That was a brief appearance. She showed off her tricks, and I talked to the children about the element of the test called “Reaction to Distraction.” I thought it tied in well to the text for the week and drew a comparison about how easily we get distracted from paying attention to God.
Her regular church attendance started a few months later, on one of those low Sundays: the 26th of December. I knew good and well attendance would be slim, and I decided that anyone who came to church on that day deserved a handshake from Molly. We stood at the door together and greeted each person who came in; then she sat in a pew with my family during worship. She was so delighted to be with people, but so quiet and good during the service, that we took another risk on a three-day weekend, and then another when it was snowy, and soon people were asking where she was each week! The church member who keeps track of attendance began recording her as a member of my family.
Molly loved going to Main Street Church, too. She didn’t know it was a church, of course, but she probably felt the long aisles with pews on each side were familiar in some way. She would enter the Sanctuary with me at the Chancel end and run to the front door, because of course that’s where you greet people, isn’t it? She’s only been to our new church once on a Sunday, but she immediately recognized the feeling of community, and she sang along with the choir, too! (Always in tune.) At the Word for the Young, she was part of a skit about what it means to say, “All are Welcome!”
Molly loves church for the fellowship. It’s her work, and it’s her therapy, too. No matter how lame or stiff she might be feeling, she loves to get in the car and go see people. In the past year or so, as her arthritis worsened, and it made me all the more willing to bring her along and share her love with others for however long she is with us.
I think back to the day we picked her up, and how she squalled in the back seat of the car in Snowman’s arms, crying for the brothers and sisters she had left behind. It didn’t take her long to find her place with us, to learn not only that we could be her family, but that the world is her family, too.
Molly changed the way I approach ministry by teaching me to take myself less seriously and by reminding me that the most important thing we do in church is make sure everyone is greeted and no one feels alone. I’m thankful to know her.
Molly invites you to read her blog, where she has a new post up!