A Minnesota church commissions Brinley, the service dog
October 13, 2022
After leading the congregation in prayer, the Rev. Dr. Greg Bolt knelt next to the golden retriever in her blue and white service dog jacket.
“Brinley, God has given you a calling to help a person in need with tasks of daily living, companionship and love. We give thanks for you and your willingness to serve, and to help. May your example inspire us to help and to love more in our daily lives. Brinley —” The dog placed her paw over Bolt’s arm and gave him a kiss. “You are commissioned to service.”
Having a service dog in training at worship and church activities, and commissioning that dog to assist someone living with a disability, is the norm at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota. It’s become part of the church’s welcoming spirit and practice.
“It’s become part of the ethos of our congregation that you will be welcome no matter who you are,” Bolt said. It’s a particularly visible welcome for those with disabilities. “People walk in and see the dog and can see that.”
It’s also part of church member Jane Ward’s longstanding work training dogs for Helping Paws, a Hopkins, Minnesota-based nonprofit that breeds, trains and places service dogs with people who need them. Brinley, the dog who was commissioned in May, now lives with a woman with mobility issues, riding the light rail with her to work and back home.
A service dog receives training to assist people with physical disabilities, veterans and first responders with PTSD and others with specific daily living tasks. The Americans with Disabilities Act grants service dogs access to places such as offices, restaurants and airplanes. Therapy dogs and emotional support dogs do not have the same type of training or legal access as service dogs.
These daily tasks can include walking, waiting, helping a person dress, putting items away, turning lights on and off, helping a person who has stumbled get up and more.
“They need to be able to learn and adapt to most anything,” Ward said.
For the final exam, dog and handler are tested at a shopping center, starting in the parking lot. “Somebody watches you unload your dog. If they jump out of the car before you call them, you fail,” Ward said.
Further tests include distracting dogs and grabby kids. At the food court, handler and examiner sit down. The dog lies down with nose and paws pointed out from the table. After a few minutes of conversation, the examiner drops several marshmallows off the table, one by one. They may land on or right in front of the dog, but if the dog eats even one, it’s a fail.
Not everything, of course, can be taught.
Ward’s previous dog, Peyton, went to a veteran who lives with PTSD. The veteran told her that one day some kids set off fireworks right behind where he was standing. The smoke in the street — followed instantly by his racing heart — put him right back in Afghanistan. Peyton looked at the man, cocked his head, then went over and leaned against his leg.
People often ask how Ward can let a dog go after raising and training him, she said. Examples like these are why she does what she does.
Helping Paws service dog trainers are required to take their charges three places each week, though Ward usually exceeds this.
With husband Ron busy in the choir, she often serves as a greeter at church along with whatever dog she is training. Brinley became known for her door-opening skills.
“Brinley did not like the organ, but she tolerated it,” Ward said. “She much preferred the piano.”
Unlike therapy dogs, service dogs can’t be petted. This is hard for the kids in the congregation, but they learn and come to appreciate a service dog’s role, Bolt said.
When Ward takes a dog with her to meetings, the dog lies quietly under or beside her chair. “People tell me it makes the room relax to have the dog walk in and be there,” she said. “Even though they’re not allowed to interact with the dog, it changes the tone.”
Nancy Crowe is a writer, editor and animal wellness practitioner based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today’s Focus: Service dogs in training
Let us join in prayer for:
Let us pray
Holy and loving Gatherer, we praise you and glorify your holy name. We are grateful for all your gifts to the church. Give us your mercy and compassion for the sake of our brothers and sisters who need it more, so we can share with them your gifts of love. In your holy name we pray. Amen.
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