Canine Ministers of Healing

Therapy dogs help a range of people in nursing homes, schools, and even a Barnes & Noble bookstore

Rusty visits with Helen, a resident of St. Mary's at Asbury Ridge in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Therapy, it seems, has gone to the dogs.

Therapy dogs that visit and attend to patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and other places offer comfort and support to people.

What these dogs provide is as varied as each patient, according to Deanna Klingel, who lives in Sapphire, North Carolina, and has therapy dogs named Lily and Jessie.

“For many patients, seeing the dog, petting the dog, awakens memories,” she said. “For patients who lack motivation, ‘walking’ the dog, exercising with the dog, is needed motivation for mobility.”

Klingel, who suffered from Lyme disease, was assisted in her own healing by her golden retriever and wanted to share her experience with others.

“I decided if I ever got well enough to do so, we would train, and I’d share her with others who could benefit from the warmth of her presence,” she said.

Klingel is a member St. Jude Parish in Sapphire and said her faith played a role in her ministry.

“I initially took communion to the housebound, hospitalized, and people in nursing homes. My dog came with me,” she said. “I went directly following weekday morning Mass and she attended Mass with me for years.”

So, what’s in a dog’s workday?

Klingel said the hours vary and also depend on if the dog is up for it.

“Many of our visits, because we live in a remote area, involve a drive. For instance, to go to the hospital that we visit weekly involves a 45-minute drive,” she said. “If she’s up for it, we do it. As long as the tail is wagging and she’s eager to get inside to see her friends, OK. But, if she seems hot, sluggish, not excited, we go home.”

Klingel’s written about dog therapy in Just for the Moment: The Remarkable Gift of the Therapy Dog, available here, and is the author of an earlier article for Busted Halo on the subject.

“Four-Footed Ministers”

Jerilyn Felton, director of ministry formation for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, created a ministry model called Canine-Assisted Ministry/Pastoral and Spiritual Care (CAM/PS). Her dog, Alya, is a Four-Footed Minister in CAM/PS.

CAM/PS integrates a canine companion directly into a spiritual/pastoral care visit or a group prayer service. The canine’s presence is intended to help individuals lift their minds and hearts to God.

Felton described the difference between dog ministry and animal-assisted therapy.

“The one thing that makes ‘dog ministry’ different from animal-assisted therapy is the fact that the goal in our interactions with individuals or a group is the spiritual and pastoral care of the patient or group members,” she said.

Therapy dogs visit a nursing home resident.

“In spiritual care, we can only pray that we have planted the seeds of God’s love and compassion and that the patient will respond to that however they are able to do so,” Felton added. “We usually never know how that comes about. That is the glory and mystery of God’s intense love for us.”

Dogs that participate in Felton’s program receive training through the Delta Society‘s Pet Partners® Program, which prepares and screens volunteers and their pets for visiting animal programs in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools and other facilities.

Felton has seen firsthand the difference a visit from a dog can make for a patient.

“Perhaps the most significant moment occurred as a ‘God thing’ when a resident we visited with Alzheimer’s reached out to my dog, an action that created quite a stir,” she said. “I had no idea until the staff shared the story with me that the person had NEVER reached out to engage their environment. I was grateful that we could be there to witness this.”

Two Benedictine sisters in Erie, Pennsylvania, are using their “free time” for therapy dog ministry. Sr. Rita Groner and Sr. Carolann McLaughlin bring their dog, Rusty, to nursing homes, hospitals, schools, group homes and the local Barnes & Noble bookstore.

“A child who has a hard time reading can sit with a dog and read to the dog without fear of being made fun of,” Sr. Carolann said.

Rusty has completed more than 50 visits and received his American Kennel Club (AKC) therapy dog patch, displayed proudly on his vest.

Elizabeth A. Elliott is a staff writer for the Arlington Catholic Herald in Arlington, Virginia, and a freelance writer from Omaha, Nebraska. She has degrees in journalism and music from Creighton University, an MFA in Creative Writing from Creighton University and a certificate in paralegal studies from the College of Saint Mary. Elizabeth has written for several publications including "America," "National Catholic Reporter," "Catholic Voice" and "Omaha World-Herald." Elizabeth is also a flutist and has played for more than 20 years.