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Maine dog ministry gives hope to homebound folks

 


Maine dog ministry gives hope to homebound folks

Nov. 17, 2004

A UMNS Feature
By Shanta Bryant Gyan*

A simple touch brightens the day of many residents living in a nursing home in southern Maine. But this touch is not a human touch; rather, it’s a nuzzle or a lick from Allegra, a 5-year-old golden retriever.

As a ministry service dog, Allegra’s sole job is showering unconditional love and attention on people in need. Each month, the Rev. Arlene Tully takes Allegra to a nursing home where residents can touch, pet and receive affection from the dog. Allegra also accompanies her owner in other ministries to the community throughout the week.

"That’s her full-time job, and instead of helping one person for a very long time, Allegra helps lots of people for short periods of time," says Tully, who started the dog ministry in 2001.

Tully serves as pastor of Randolph United Methodist Church and East Pittston United Methodist Church in southern Maine.

Allegra was originally trained as a wheelchair assistance dog with the National Education for Assistance Dog Services, but the trainers quickly realized that her fear of noises could create problems later. At the same time, they recognized that her gentle-natured manner and intuitive traits could make her useful as a ministry service dog.

"Out of that failure comes this wonderful new ministry," explains Tully. "As in many of our lives when we think we have failed … we find it just leads us to a different place that God intended us to be."

Tully got the idea to start a dog ministry after a friend who worked in a nursing home told about taking her dog to work for "Bring Your Pet to Work Day." The friend noted that one of the more stubborn residents opened up and became more social and interactive with the dog around.

"In a way, it’s a social lubricant," Tully says of the dog ministry. "The dog is able to create an instant rapport with people, and they are automatically able to connect."

When Tully and Allegra visited a Wal-Mart recently, several people approached the dog and eventually initiated a conversation with Tully. Upon learning that Allegra was a ministry service dog, she said, people started sharing stories about their pets as well as good or bad experiences with churches.

"All of this is because of the dog," Tully says.

Most of all, Tully says, she appreciates the fact that Allegra demonstrates unconditional love and acceptance toward everyone with whom she comes into contact.

"The dog doesn’t care about the clothes you’re wearing; she loves everyone. I wish I could love like that," the Maine pastor says.

And the nursing home residents that Allegra regularly visits love to have her there to pet and share affection.

For many of them, it’s the touch that means so much. One nursing home resident, stroking Allegra’s golden fur, returns the love.

"You’re loving this," the resident says, "and I am — yes, I am!"

*Gyan is a freelance journalist based in the Washington area.

News media contact: Fran Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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