“Angels on Four Legs”: Dogs as Valuable Companions in Pastoral Care

“Angels on Four Legs”: Dogs as Valuable Companions in Pastoral Care

A good shepherd needs a dog. Pastors have good experience in actively involving their four-legged friends in public life, and not only during the coronavirus period. After all, they say that Hildegard von Bingen said: “Give a man a dog, and his soul will be healed.”

Pastor Rainer Maria Schiessler, known in and around Munich as a sore thumb for his unconventional lifestyle, shares his life with French bulldog Pia. As part of an animal welfare initiative, Schiessler took over a discarded and injured breeding female. Pia is now a certified guest dog of the Ststreichelbande association in Munich.

“Now she is a parish dog, everyone knows her,” Schissler said happily. Pii is allowed – if people want it – to visit homes and the sick and be present at all conversations. For a pastor, a bitch is an “angel on four legs.” She also attended many confessions, “but does not reveal anything.”

With so much love for dogs, it’s no surprise that Schliessler also welcomes dog owners with well-behaved animals. “It’s perfectly normal here for people to take their dog to communion,” the pastor says. “Before people don’t come because they don’t want to leave their dog at home alone, the dog can go to church with them.” The first Sunday in July is always especially crowded when Schiessler invites you to the Viecherlmesse. They are visited by 500 pet owners, including a delegation from the Munich Association for the Protection of Animals with several four-legged friends.

Bishop Gerhard Feige with his dog Willy
Image: © Diocese of Magdeburg

A photo of Willy, the dog of Bishop Faiga, as a puppy – he is almost a star in the Magdeburg diocese.

During the low-contact Corona period, Protestant pastors made a virtue out of necessity and began pastoral dog walks. Bad Godesberg pastor Oliver Ploch “brought a lot of sympathy” to his about 20 encounters with the parish dog Musti. The friendly, light-colored mongrel is also often involved in conversations. He is “a silent listener who shows unconditional affection and opens hearts to people,” says Ploch. In difficult situations, it creates relaxation. A pastor who lives alone also appreciates his four-legged friend as a pleasant roommate who “carries and strengthens.”

Ploch’s colleague from Düsseldorf, Christina von Bennigsen-Matskevich, is also offering walks with her dog Ferra, a good opportunity for her to get to know her new community during the coronavirus period. In the spring and summer of 2021, the pastor suggested two or three pastoral walks with the dog per week, now two or three per month. According to the pastor, this is “a lower threshold than talking in the parish office.”

Speaking of walks: Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, himself the proud owner of Willi the Cocker Spaniel, says he not only knows the names of all the dogs in the area from his walks, but also regularly chats with people who are very far from the circle of Catholic-bourgeois haze. . “I benefit from Willy. I have no idea if I would have known so many people here without him,” Feige says.

Cologne pastoral officer Peter Otten also fell for the dog – through his wife. Since she had wanted a dog for a long time, Greta the poodle has finally moved in with the family. Meanwhile, the cheerful four-legged friend also won the heart of the pastor, as he recently wrote in a humorous column on the Public Forum. Otten doesn’t just see Greta as a “low-threshold communication bridge” when he’s in his neighborhood.

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Every week, Otten visits an elderly person from his neighborhood at a nursing home with a white dog. Meeting Greta, who enjoys every stroke, is a very enjoyable way to meet and connect, especially for older people – “touch and touch,” says Otten. With her cheerful, sweet and sensitive nature, she also opens many doors with her dark beady eyes in pastoral conversations. During conversations about grief, Greta often seeks out contact with people, “as if she has a feeling that someone needs me next to her.” For Otten, “it’s very nice to feel like a dog is just doing something to people…”

Sometimes the pastor takes Greta with him to the service. For example, at Pentecost, when Otten gave a dog as an example of how one can understand each other without speaking the same language. Greta is full of cheerfulness and always approaches people openly and impartially. “If she comes shaking with joy, it’s like a sacrament,” the pastor says. “You don’t have to say many words.”

Pastoral speaker with dog: “People who meet Greta in a community context think it’s great,” says Otten, pleased with the positive response. From his point of view, much more could be enriched by the presence of a dog, for example, the preparation for the First Communion. Dogs in the care of shepherds are “unfortunately still underrepresented,” he says. This often goes unnoticed and is not made public. Otten wants to move the topic forward. He has already connected with other pastors with dogs through Facebook.

Angelika Prauss (KNA)

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