Working with my dogs

I wonder what you think of when I mention the word “Teamwork”. You may think of an orchestra or a sports team, a stage presentation or the Duke of the Edinburgh awards, or even perhaps a marriage.

Over the past 40 years of teaching and ministry, teamwork for me has of course meant working with colleagues, but equally it has meant working with my special four-legged friends and companions - my beautiful dogs!

A dog has always been part of my family and my life. In my twenties, while I was teaching and a housemistress at a boarding school in Sussex, I adopted a beautiful black labrador from the local RSPCA, called Ben. At this time I was responsible for 38 girls of 11-18 years, many of whom came from overseas or from families with pets. So of an evening, Ben was always in the common room and received many cuddles and hugs from girls missing pets, parents or home. Somehow a cup of hot chocolate and biscuits and a talk with Ben resolved many a problem or upset. Even when I had bad news to share with them, Ben was always there, we worked as a team.

As soon as I began ministry, looking after seven churches in the Launceston Circuit on the Devon/Cornwall border, I adopted Oliver, a rottweiler/collie. It may seem an odd choice, but he was young and very willing, with work and patience, to be shaped and moulded into a gentle, faithful companion. He often accompanied me visiting or when I was out late at night across the isolated countryside for meetings.

I remember one particularly difficult bereavement visit when he was specially requested by the funeral director, as the daughter was anti-church and anti-clergy. Sitting in their garden, under an apple tree with Oliver, me dressed in jeans and T shirt listening and taking notes, seemed very surreal. But how interesting that subsequently, Oliver and I were often invited for a coffee or a meal; barriers had been broken down and I was accepted as “normal” rather than clergy.

When I moved to a circuit in London, Oliver was indeed my trusted companion. The number of times someone gave out my address and the door-bell rang late evening with an unknown man high on drugs displaying threatening behaviour on my door-step. A deep growl and show of teeth from Oliver just resolved the situation in seconds! Meanwhile the church folk knew him as the gentle boy who snored on his beanbag during bible studies or meetings.

I was working as a Methodist minister in Seaton when I adopted Alfie, a beautiful golden retriever, and our partnership began immediately. I remember collecting him on the Thursday, getting him checked out at my local vets as he’d been under-fed and shut up in a courtyard with little exercise, and then I took him home to give him a good bath and brushing, followed by his supper. It was obvious to me that he had a beautiful nature ~ just what I was looking for as a ‘pat dog’ and the vet confirmed he was approximately 5 years old. From the beginning he responded to love and company, and as I had requested, he was a dog used to cats so he took little notice of my two large seven year old feline friends. In fact, I think they established they were boss very quickly.

Three days after collecting Alfie I was taking a morning service at Dalwood, the smallest of my four churches and, with their consent, I took him with me. Thereafter, he always attended the service at that particular church; sitting on his bed towards the back of the church while I took the service and joining us afterwards for coffee. They even had a special tin of dog biscuits for him. He was also always welcome at the open monthly coffee mornings which we held for the village, at the church. Somehow he relaxed the atmosphere and there was always laughter.

Alfie was an important companion and point of contact with people wherever I went. Whether visitors at a coffee morning, the neighbours and their children, other local people walking their dogs in the field or on the beach, or church folk coming to the manse to talk through a problem, Alfie treated them all alike and they visibly relaxed as they were talking.

It was quite normal on a Saturday morning to have the girls next door throw their ball over the fence into my garden, so they had an excuse to come and sit on my lounge floor, with their friends, to brush and comb Alfie. He was an excellent listener and all sorts of secrets were shared with him over the years by this group of 9-14 year olds.

As Alfie delighted in visiting people, requests came quickly. Once a week I was chaplain at the Hospice Daycare Centre and they were delighted to have this large, gentle companion accompany me. It reached the stage where I was still disinfecting my hands in the corridor, while Alfie went ahead happily trotting along to the dayroom, carrying his teddy in his mouth. “It’s Alfie!” I’d hear a chorus of voices chant in pleased, uplifted tones. Whatever their degree of illness, Alfie instinctively seemed to know what was required. He would sit quietly at their side, put a head gently on a lap, or perhaps nestle against a leg. Vulnerable men and women welcomed his gentle companionship with a stroke or pat, a smile or a tear. Conversation was so much easier with Alfie present and barriers of uncertainty from people who had little or no experience of church, or talking with a minister were broken down. The people at the hospice and the nurses looked forward to seeing Alfie each week and really missed him if occasionally we couldn’t attend.

As relationships grew, I was inevitably asked to visit them and family members in their own homes, or in hospital, and of course to take their funeral services. Imagine my surprise when one lady asked if Alfie could be at her funeral service at the Crematorium.  I got permission, and when the time came, the local newspaper headline was, “Alfie mourns Christine” with a photo of him at the service.

I believe pets are God’s gift to us. They have instinctive empathy when human words are inadequate. Both my teaching/housemistress post and my ministry have been enriched by teamwork with my beloved dogs.

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