A dog with a calling
To church, hospitals, and assisted living centers, Mosby brings a healing ministry based on unconditional caring and comfort
LITTLETON - Mosby is a Baptist, but his ministry is inclusive.
Anyone - atheist or believer - will get a hand licked by the 3-year-old golden retriever, deemed too friendly for work as an assistance dog for the disabled but perfectly suited for a career in spiritual outreach.
Mosby is a ministry dog, one of a growing breed of assistance dogs assigned to clergy and church workers to offer a special kind of comfort.
A few times each week, Mosby dons his vest and nose-lead, chows down a Pup-Peroni dog snack, and hops in the backseat for a short ride to Emerson Hospital in Concord, assisted living centers in Ayer and Westford, or the Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in Littleton.
Mosby’s busiest day is Sunday, however, when he can be found lying in a pew alongside his owners, Lynda and Larry Fisher, at the First Baptist Church of Littleton, where they are longtime members.
His presence is especially welcome during what has been a hard year for the First Baptist community. Several members are coping with serious illness, deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, and job layoffs, said First Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. Deborah Blanchard.
“A dog ministry breaks down barriers right away,’’ said Blanchard. “It helps put aside the barriers and connect on a real level to offer comfort and love.’’
The idea of a formal training program for ministry dogs sprang up just over a decade ago, when a divinity student and dog lover made a case to NEADS, Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, a nonprofit organization based in Princeton that is one of the nation’s largest assistance-dog training programs.
“She explained how she’d be going to hospices and working with the elderly and sick children, all populations who can’t have a dog but could really benefit,’’ said Sheila O’Brien, the agency’s chief executive officer. “She said, ‘You know, Sheila, dog spelled backwards is God.’ ’’
In 1998, NEADS graduated its first ministry dog, a schnauzer named Lynks. Since then, it has trained more than 15 dogs serving a variety of churches.
Last year, 74-year-old Lynda Fisher approached NEADS with hopes of being matched with a ministry dog.
She and her husband, Larry, 78, had lost their longtime canine companion, a 15-year-old Brittany spaniel named Jessie.
You could say she had a dog-sized hole in her soul.
“I told them, ‘I’m a deaconess at my church. Part of my duties is to visit the sick and infirm, and it would go so much better with a dog,’ ’’ Fisher recalled.
Although the dogs are generally designated for ministers, Fisher’s 40-year affiliation with First Baptist and enthusiastic devotion to her faith, and to dogs, won her an exception to the rule.
NEADS trainers introduced her to a few puppies, but sparks really flew with Mosby, named as a puppy for John Mosby, a Confederate officer who worked to help heal the nation’s wounds after the Civil War.
“I like to think it was God saying, ‘Lynda, this is the dog for you,’ ’’ she said.
She and Mosby trained together at NEADS headquarters and on April 13, 2008, Mosby received his orders and a blessing at a dedication ceremony at the 187-year-old American Baptist church on Littleton Common.
During weekly outreach visits to Life Care, Mosby visits often with 92-year-old Phyllis Wallace, whose diabetes keeps her bedbound and away from Sunday services at First Baptist.
Mosby is not the only church worker making the rounds at Life Care: local chaplains, priests, and rabbis regularly visit and hold services, including Wednesday Vespers and Sunday Mass, said executive director Ellen Levinson.
But Mosby may generate the most enthusiasm. During a visit to the facility’s unit for Alzheimer’s disease patients, residents halted a bingo game to reach out to touch the dog. Several elders who had been sitting in silence started talking animatedly.
“Isn’t he beautiful?’’ murmured one woman in a wheelchair.
“I love it when the dogs come down. It makes everyone smile. It brings back happy feelings,’’ said Charlotte McCullough, a nurse who oversees the unit. “It makes people think of their childhoods.’’
On Sunday mornings, Mosby helps Larry Fisher, a church greeter, pass out programs, comes up to the altar for the children’s portion of the service, and licks hands at coffee hour.
“It’s more fun when he’s here,’’ said 12-year-old Alyssa Mackensie after a service last Sunday.
Mosby ministers at home too. The Fishers, Medford natives who have been married for 51 years, are longtime community volunteers. But Mosby keeps them active in their senior years, mingling with the crowds at Littleton’s Halloween and July Fourth celebrations. Mosby makes friends wherever he goes while pulling them along by the leash, the Fishers said.
“Life without him would be so much duller,’’ said Lynda Fisher. “I know we’d be a lot less active.’’
Not everyone in the congregation or community-at-large likes dogs, so Fisher says she is vigilant about keeping Mosby away, unless people clearly want him nearby.
Dogs are not welcome in all houses of worship, and federal law does not guarantee access to churches, mosques, and temples, even for service dogs, though O’Brien said she has not encountered criticism of the ministry dog work by NEADS.
Some animal advocates are concerned that Mosby and his working colleagues get too few opportunities to socialize with other dogs. NEADS asks owners to plan play dates and make regular visits to offleash dog parks, “so the dog has a chance to be a dog,’’ she said.
There is also a growing demand for therapy dogs of all types. NEADS began providing dogs for military veterans with physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder in 2006, and more dogs are requested by injured vets every year. She also predicts there will soon be a boom in demand for dogs trained to assist autistic children, and to detect blood-sugar imbalances in diabetics.
The pool of trained therapy dogs is limited, with NEADS graduating just 50 or so annually from all its programs.
But one advantage for the ministry dog program is its acceptance of a wider variety of breeds, even tiny shih tzus, while traditional assistance dogs tend to be retrievers or German shepherds, large enough to guide a client through traffic and crowds, said O’Brien.
Most of Mosby’s clients have been to First Baptist members, but the Fishers say he is available for visits to any area resident, of any religious affiliation.
Mosby does not proselytize, and neither do the Fishers, who carry no religious materials on their visits.
Dogs, unlike stressed family members and shy children, are also never in a rush to end a visit to a hospital or nursing home.
“He lifts their spirits for five minutes, but at least that’s five minutes,’’ said Lynda Fisher. “That’s a good thing.’’
Matters of Faith is a series of occasional articles examining religious life in area communities. Erica Noonan can be reached at email@example.com.