[Episcopal News Service] Paxton may not understand the full significance of his calling, but the 10-year-old Westie is one of All Saints Episcopal Church’s most dedicated ministers serving as Jesus’ paws in the world.
As a therapy dog dispatched by Perfect Paws Pet Ministry at All Saints in Danvers, Massachusetts, Paxton and his human, Fran Weil, have brought the soothing presence of a canine companion to students of all ages, nursing home residents, hospital patients and addicts in drug rehabilitation centers. Weil is always amazed by the sense of calm that be shared from simply patting her dog’s head.
“As terrific as the response is to our dogs wherever we go, it’s so rewarding for us,” Weil said. “It is really God’s work, and we are so blessed to use one of God’s creatures to do this amazing outreach.”
Weil, the therapy dog coordinator for the church, is one of several parishioners with dogs certified to do this work along with the other 600 active members of Dog B.O.N.E.S. Therapy Dogs of Massachusetts. Some of these therapy dogs were called on to provide comfort to victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Others regularly serve as captive listeners for elementary schoolers learning to read.
In another case a while back, Perfect Paws dispatched one of its therapy dogs to provide “a little comfort time” for the family and friends of a 10-year-old who was hit and killed by a train, Weil said. It offered “a wonderful diversion” from the pain of loss.
Episcopal churches across the country are engaged in pet ministries of one kind or another. One of the most common are the annual services offering pet blessings, typically held in early October around the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals.
The Episcopal Church Asset Map, though not a comprehensive listing, shows at least a dozen congregations that take their pet outreach a step further, from pet supplies collections to fundraisers benefiting the local no-kill animal shelter.
All Saints appears to be the only Episcopal church so fully engaged with a therapy dog ministry, thanks largely to the work of Weil, 71. She describes herself as a longtime lapsed Catholic who began attending Episcopal services late in life and “had never experienced such welcome ever.” She has worshiped at All Saints since 2001.
Her role with Perfect Paws is negotiable: Founder, lead volunteer, honorary pet chaplain – each title might be appropriate, she said. She also sometimes serves as a pet bereavement counselor, and she accompanies pet owners on trips to the veterinarian when tough decisions need to be made about life and death.
Weil is a natural for that kind of work, because her love of animals is nearly universal.
“I love any animal. I’ve never met an animal I haven’t liked,” she said. “Well, I haven’t met a tarantula. I might be a little reluctant.”
All Saints launched Perfect Paws Pet Ministry in May 2010 with a monthly evening Eucharist for pet owners and their pets, all pets – rabbits, birds, cats, but mostly dogs. A story about the service got picked up by the Associated Press and drew national and even international attention to the ministry, Weil said, but the outreach has remained local.
“We started this because we realized that people find God in different ways, and so often it’s through their animals,” she said. “We often say it’s not an accident that ‘God’ spelled backward is ‘dog.’”
The services draw about 30 to 50 people, some of whom have been attending since the beginning, even those whose pets have since died.
The Rev. Marya DeCarlen, rector at All Saints, said only a handful of the pet service regulars are also All Saints parishioners. Perfect Paws, then, has become a distinct worship community centered around pet ownership.
“It is a place for humans and their pets to share life transitions, so a lot of grief work happens in these services,” DeCarlen said. “And a lot of joy and appreciation is lifted up in these services,” such as new adoptions.
“It parallels our own lives when we join a community. This community is really more than Eucharist. It is the body of Christ sharing life transitions with each other.”
DeCarlen began serving at All Saints a little over four years ago and initially found the pet services to be a bit overwhelming, but she quickly warmed to the ministry and asked parishioners to suggest ways of expanding it beyond the monthly services.
All Saints now collects pet food to donate to the local food pantry, and members minister to police and military K-9 handlers who have lost their dogs. About five times a year, the church hosts therapy dog workshops in the parish hall led by Weil and another parishioner.
Most dogs regardless of breed, can serve as therapy dogs as long as they aren’t skittish, can handle unfamiliar environments and can be trained to follow basic commands and negotiate around objects, such as a wheelchair or walker. The bond between dog and owner is the most important factor, Weil said.
“Nobody knows the dog better than the owner,” she said. “It’s always good to know that the person has a good relationship with the dog.”
Any organization can contact Perfect Paws or Dog B.O.N.E.S. and request a free visit from a therapy dog. Most of Perfect Paws’ therapy dogs spend time in schools, whether easing high school students’ stress before and during exams or helping younger students learn to read.
For the younger students, they are encouraged to read directly to the dog, an experience shown to have measurable benefits in improving reading skills.
“They feel inhibited when reading in front of peers … but they don’t in front of the dog,” said DeCarlen, whose 13-year-old Labrador, Blue, is often on the receiving end of those children’s readings.
“That has been a wonderful experience, to see children not only read but to use expressions. They want the dog to have a reaction when they read,” DeCarlen said. As for Blue, “he just loves to be doted upon.”
Dogs are known for giving unconditional love, and Weil said that is one reason why reading to dogs is so beneficial. “The dog’s never going to say, ‘That’s the wrong word. You didn’t pronounce it right.’”
It’s like a theatrical performance, she added, with the children suspending their disbelief and reading as if the dog is really understanding the story.
The parishioners from All Saints who participate in the therapy dog ministry have become like a family, and they have supported each other in times of grief, particularly over the past year, during which time four of the dogs have died, Weil said.
That grief mirrors what many pet owners feel at the loss of longtime companions who, too, felt like part of the family, and this has been another motivation for All Saints in stepping up its outreach and its message of welcome.
Pets have “taken on a bigger importance in people’s lives, and when that happens you bring what’s important to you to church, whether it’s in your mind or heart or spirit,” DeCarlen said. To be a member of the body of Christ, she said, is to embrace a sense of purpose in those relationships while spreading compassion to others, whether they walk on two feet or four paws.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].