After leading the congregation in prayer, the Reverend Dr. Greg Bolt knelt beside the golden retriever in his blue and white service dog jacket.
“Brinley, God has given you a call to help a person in need with the chores of daily life, companionship and love. We give thanks for you and your willingness to serve and help. inspire to help and love more in our daily lives. Brinley…” The dog placed her paw on Bolt’s arm and gave him a kiss. “You are charged with serving.”
Having an assistance dog in training at church services and functions, and having that dog assist a person living with a disability, is standard at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota. This is part of the welcoming spirit and practice of the church.
“It has become part of our congregation’s ethos that you will be welcome no matter who you are,” Bolt said. It is a particularly visible welcome for people with disabilities. “People come in and see the dog and can see it.”
It’s also among church member Jane Ward’s longtime training dogs for Helping Paws, a Hopkins, Minn.-based nonprofit that breeds, trains and places service dogs. with people who need it. Brinley, the dog who was ordered in May, now lives with a woman with mobility issues, taking the light rail with her to work and home. This is the second dog the church has ordered for Ward, who hopes to start training a third dog soon.
A rigorous service path
A service dog is trained to assist people with physical disabilities, veterans and first responders with PTSD, and others with specific tasks of daily living. 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 someone get dressed, putting things away, turning lights on and off, helping someone who has tripped up, etc. Dogs should be comfortable traveling and able to get along with other animals and humans in the home.
“They have to be able to learn and adapt to almost anything,” Ward said.
For the final exam, the dog and the handler are tested in a shopping center, starting with the parking lot. “Someone is watching you unload your dog. If they jump out of the car before you call them, you fail,” Ward said.
Other tests include distracting dogs and snappy children. At the food court, the handler and examiner sit down. The dog lies down with its nose and paws pointing away from the table. After a few minutes of conversation, the examiner places several marshmallows on the table, one by one. They may land on or just in front of the dog, but if the dog eats even one, it’s a miss.
Of course, not everything can be learned.
Ward’s previous dog, Peyton, went to a veteran who lives with PTSD. The veteran told him that one day children set off fireworks right behind where he was standing. The smoke in the street – followed instantly by his pounding heart – brought him back to Afghanistan. Peyton looked at the man, tilted her head, then walked over and leaned against his leg.
People often ask how Ward can let go of a dog after raising and training it, she said. Examples like these explain why she does what she does.
Brinley’s difficult beginnings
Brinley, commissioned in May, first lived and worked with another coach. Then Covid hit, and in-person training suddenly had to go virtual. It didn’t work out so well for Brinley, and she fell behind. When Brinley was reassigned to Ward, the young dog knew only eight to ten of the approximately 80 clues required.
“They didn’t think she was going to graduate,” Ward said.
She made the virtual training meetings work for Brinley.
“(Dogs) just want to be loved and please you,” she said. “You just have to find the right motivation for them to do things.”
A church regular
Helping Paws service dog trainers are required to take their loads three places each week, although Ward usually exceeds this.
With her husband Ron busy in the choir, she often serves as the host at church with the dog she trains. Brinley became known for her door-opening skills.
“Brinley didn’t like the organ, but she tolerated it,” Ward said. “She much preferred the piano.”
Unlike therapy dogs, service dogs cannot be petted. It’s tough for the kids in the congregation, but they’re learning and enjoying the role of a service dog, Bolt said.
When Ward takes a dog with her to meetings, the dog quietly lies down under or beside her chair. “People tell me it relaxes the room to bring the dog in and be there,” she said. “Even if they’re not allowed to interact with the dog, it changes the tone.”
A new commissioning
Greg Bolt has co-pastored First Presbyterian Church with his wife Heidi for five and a half years. Ward approached the two about commissioning his former dog, Peyton, for his new job. Heidi has found few resources on blessing service animals, but she has put together a commissioning.
When Brinley was ready to be commissioned, it was her husband’s turn. “Heidi had to do it last time, so I made sure to do it this time,” said Greg Bolt.
The faithful in person were still few and distant, although Greg Bolt invited children to come forward to get their hands on Brinley during the commissioning. He urged those on the benches and in line to also head to Brinley. “It’s something we’re doing now,” he said.
by Nancy Crowe for the Presbyterian Foundation, special for Presbyterian News Service