By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

This past year, Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church’s therapy dog training program was so popular, they were forced to put dozens of potential therapy pups and their trainers on a waiting list.

“Every time we put the word out that we were doing another class, the list would fill up immediately,” said Gayle Fiser, Pet Ministry Coordinator at Pulaski Heights.

Fiser said the waitlist grew so large, they had to expand their classes into the summer. The spring and fall, seasons when the classes would normally take place, weren’t cutting it anymore.

As the church heads into 2020, they are now looking at offering more than just therapy dog training; beginning in November, the church is launching a full pet ministry expansion that covers every facet of a pet owner and their furry friends’ lives.

The church is launching three new components to their pet ministry. In addition to therapy dog training in the spring and fall, Pulaski Heights is offering Care and Support for Pet Owners, Community Service and Educational Programs, and Animal Events.

Each one of these components is intended to break down the traditional barriers placed between pets, their owners, and the church, and find ways to incorporate pets fully into the lives of the church community.

“One of the most important pieces of this expansion is Care and Support for Pet Owners. This will be a support system for pet owners who have pets that are sick or have recently died,” Fiser said. “We have a connect card on our church bulletin that has different things you can check for care and support, and we’ll be adding ‘pet illness’ as a box to be checked if you need prayers for your pet.”

Pulaski Heights is also looking to hand out pet prayer blankets, similar to prayer shawls, that Fiser says will let pets know they are surrounded by love and prayers.

“They’ll be made out of fleece instead of a crocheted blanket, that way they are lightweight and soft, and their nails won’t get caught in them.”

Fiser shared two different examples of how she has seen prayer blankets help sick pets and their families through difficult times. In one instance, the pet had been mauled and seriously injured, but miraculously recovered. Fiser said the family attributes the recovery to the prayers that they and their pet received, and the healing power of the prayer blanket.

In another example, a pet was very sick and passed away, but the prayer blanket that was given to their pet was still a comfort to the family during the illness.

“That prayer blanket was very meaningful to the family, and they kept the blanket even after their pet had died,” Fiser said.

Another aspect of the Care and Support Ministry is offering comfort during a situation where a pet has to be put down by a vet.

“I or someone else can go with the owner to the vet to support them and be able to bless the pet before it is put down. The owner can also call the church office on their way to the vet, and drive by the church parking lot to have their pets blessed on the way to the vet,” Fiser said.

The Pet Ministry has found ways to comfort pet owners in other ways as well, like pet-specific prayer cards that they can mail or hand out to people with a sick, injured, or dying pet.

“There’s a part of that pet prayer that says ‘we feel a deep sense of loss over the death of our beloved pet that others may not understand,’ and I think that’s an important phrase because pet owners are hurting and we validate their pain.”

Fiser said they have already heard from pet owners that the prayer card has made a huge difference to them during the grieving process.

“We gave this card to a pet owner whose pet had recently passed away, and they put that prayer card next to a picture of their pet in their home. They found a lot of comfort in that simple prayer. It was helpful to them to know that someone cared,” Fiser said.

“So many people feel guilty about being sad about their pet dying because society makes them think that it’s insignificant and they should not be having these deep feelings of loss over a pet. But when we acknowledge that grief, it’s a relief to them. It lets them know it’s OK to feel sad.”

For the Community Service and Educational Programs aspect of the expansion, Fiser and others are asking pet owners what they would like to see this part of the ministry turn into.

“We may look at setting up adoption events at local animal shelters,” she said.

Educational programs are also being planned for the future and may involve having expert speakers come and talk to pet owners about a wide range of topics, such as addressing and stopping bad behaviors in a pet or how to introduce children to a new family animal.

“We might even bring in a professional photographer that can show you how to take the best photos of your pet!” Fiser said.

Remington and his owner the Rev. Candace Barron went through therapy dog training at PHUMC. Now, they travel around to area nursing homes and hospitals to visit people and offer comfort to those who need it most. || Photo provided by Candace Barron

Building an online resource for pet owners is something that Fiser is hoping can happen in the future. By filming or live streaming the lectures and hosting them on Pulaski Heights’ website, they can open up their ministry to young families who might be too busy with work or taking care of their children and pets to attend a lecture in person.

Animals Events, the third aspect of the ministry, has already been implemented by Pulaski Heights thanks to their annual Blessing of the Animals, which takes place every October at the church’s Hillcrest campus.

The Blessing of the Animals celebrates the birthday of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint for ecologists who had an unending passion for animals and nature. Each year, people are invited to bring their pet — whether that’s a cat, dog or even a turtle — and have them blessed by a member of the clergy at PHUMC.

Pulaski Heights’ original pet ministry, therapy dog training, is also looking to continue to grow in 2020.

The Rev. Candace Barron and her standard poodle, Remington, are two recent graduates of the Pulaski Heights’ therapy dog training.

“I originally went through the training with Remington because I thought it was a great program, but I also saw it as something that I could start at my church as well,” Barron said.

Barron is the pastor of two churches in North Little Rock; Amboy UMC and Gardner Memorial UMC.

She said Remington is a rescue and was very shy when she first adopted him, but the training at PHUMC helped him to be more confident around people and dogs he’s never met.

Since going through the training and receiving a certification, Remington and Barron travel to the VA Hospital in North Little Rock each month to visit the patients there, as well as some of the area nursing homes. Remington is able to bring comfort and serve the patients in both the hospital and nursing homes.

“People in nursing homes and veterans hospitals are often dog lovers, but they can’t have a dog where they are. So being able to be around a dog again, even if just for a little while, makes them so happy and you can tell it brings them so much joy,” Barron said.

Fiser said when she counted up every event the therapy dogs had helped with throughout the year — from visiting nursing homes, hospitals, and Alzheimer’s patients at home to events like Blue Christmas — she found that the dogs had put in more than 206 hours of service.

Fiser said one of the reasons the idea for a pet ministry has been embraced at Pulaski Heights is because of the church’s clergy who see this as a way to reach people — specifically, pet owners — that the church has not yet reached.

“We’re blessed to have an associate pastor — Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder — who has embraced this ministry and sees it as cutting edge in the church,” Fiser said. “All of this is kind of her brainchild; you know, having pets in worship. And our other pastors have embraced it as well since starting our therapy dog training.

“With the pet ministry, I think God is guiding us along through this and we just need to be smart enough to follow.”

Personally, Fiser feels a special attachment to the pet ministry. Not only has she worked with churches to bring pet ministries to two different United Methodist congregations in Arkansas, but she’s also a pet lover herself.

“The part of this that means the most to me is the care and support that we can now offer pet owners. When you have a seriously ill pet or have lost a pet, you understand the need for comfort. It’s such a big part of your life. It’s going to mean so much to people that the church now ministers to that wound and that pain. It just means a lot.”

For more information on Pulaski Heights’ newly launched Pet Ministry, contact Gayle Fiser at 501-766-3810 or gaylefiser100@gmail.com.