September 23, 2022

Priests who have dogs say their pets help ‘create bridges’ with children and adults

With his dog Guinness surrounded by smiling school children, Father Douglas Hunter doesn’t mind being in the background when he makes a visit to a fifth-grade classroom at St. Roch School in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

With his dog Guinness surrounded by smiling school children, Father Douglas Hunter doesn’t mind being in the background when he makes a visit to a fifth-grade classroom at St. Roch School in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Second of two parts (Read part one here)

(Editor’s note: A number of dogs have found homes with priests across the archdiocese, welcoming parishioners, connecting with school children and sometimes even helping to deepen people’s faith. Here are some of their stories.)

By John Shaughnessy

As the chaplain of the Indianapolis Colts, Father Douglas Hunter was striding through the team’s training camp one day in early August when someone he knew called out to him, asking a question.

The fan didn’t want the inside scoop on the Colts new quarterback Matt Ryan or head coach Frank Reich. “How’s Guinness?” the person asked instead, referring to Father Hunter’s 2-year-old dog that the priest named because of its black coat with touches of brown—just like the color of the Irish beer.

Father Hunter just smiled, overlooked the fact that he wasn’t asked how he was doing and good-naturedly thought to himself, “Guinness gets all the attention!” before telling the fan that the dog is doing just great.

And why wouldn’t Guinness? He gets gift cards to a nearby PetSmart store from parishioners at St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis where Father Hunter is pastor. He also gets an abundance of love, attention and petting from the children in the parish’s school when he and Father Hunter visit. And when the priest takes him to the Southport Police Department, where Father Hunter is also the chaplain, the law enforcement staff can’t resist being arrested by Guinness’ joy and playfulness, too.

Even with his height of 6-feet, 4-inches, Father Hunter often fades into the background when Guinness enters a room full of people, but the 43-year-old priest doesn’t mind at all because his dog has the same magical impact on him.

“He slows me down. He keeps me grounded,” says Father Hunter, who beams as he looks at Guinness who is dancing at his feet in the parish office. “If he knows I’m mad or sad, he’ll know what appropriate action to take. Sometimes, he’ll sit on my lap and just sit there and stare at me. Or he’ll just let me rub his fur. He’ll love on me, and I’ll love on him.

“He brings peace and calm not only to my household, but to our office and our school. When I meet with people whether it’s marriage prep or general pastoral counseling, at the end they’ll say, “Can I see Guinness?’ ”

As St. Roch is the patron saint of dogs—history has it that a dog saved his life—it’s fitting that the parish’s pastor has a dog. And Father Hunter is following in the footsteps of St. Roch’s beloved, longtime former pastor, Father James Wilmoth, who had a “doggie door” made in the rectory for his dog Annie so she could come and go as she pleased in the backyard.

Guinness has the same free rein in the rectory, and he reigns supreme whenever Father Hunter takes him on a visit to the school. There, a class of children heading down a hall in orderly fashion breaks ranks momentarily—with their teacher’s blessing—to rush toward Guinness and pet him. He brings smiles to everyone before Father Hunter leads him to a visit on this day to a fifth-grade classroom.

As Guinness enters the room, pure joy erupts on the faces of the fifth-grade students. Someone might have even said hello to Father Hunter but either way, the huge smile on the priest’s face shows he loves their reaction to seeing Guinness as much as they do to seeing the dog.

“It just brings Father closer to the kids because he shares someone special to the kids,” says fifth-grade teacher Kevin Watson, who is smiling, too. “The kids love Guinness.”

As the school visit ends, Father Hunter and Guinness stroll across the playground and back to the parish office for another day of work where the primary goal is always to help people know the joy of a life with Christ. Besides the parish and school staffs, Father Hunter has another great ally in that mission.

The priest smiles again at Guinness and says, “He’s nothing but a ball of love.”

‘Dogs have an amazing ability to create bridges’

After celebrating Mass and hearing confessions at St. Louis Church in Batesville, Father Stanley Pondo’s morning on this day also includes the reality that his sometimes rambunctious 4-month-old puppy named Stan just knocked the pastor’s office phone off his desk, making it temporarily inoperable.

And minutes later, the priest’s 12-year-old dog named Oliver lets out a whine and gives his owner that look that lets him know the water bowl is empty and needs to be filled now.

So Father Pondo takes a quick break from a conversation to refill the bowl—a gesture that proves one of the priest’s points about the blessings he receives from having dogs as companions.

“As a priest, you spend a lot of time caring for people—hearing confessions, anointing the sick, being present to people in crisis. What we don’t have a lot of is taking care of the small things of daily life that happen in a family. Having dogs lets me do that. I feed them, clean up after them, give them baths. These smaller things are good things to have responsibility for. It’s good for humility and just being human.”

There’s also another great blessing for Father Pondo.

“They bring a lot of joy to my life. The joy they bring is the joy of friendship. There is the emotional connection. I look out for them, and they look out for me.”

There’s a definite touch of joy in the way Father Pondo has named the two Newfoundland breed dogs.

Part of the reason that the 62-year-old priest gave Oliver that name was a salute to a well-known, slapstick comedy duo that made him laugh as a child, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. With the priests’ first name being Stanley, Oliver seemed a fun name for his dog. And when the puppy joined Father Pondo’s home this year, he gave him the name Stan to join in the joy.

“Oliver is getting older. I decided it would be nice for him to have a little buddy, somebody to interact with. It’s working well. They like each other. They play together. Their antics make me laugh.”

The dogs are also a hit with the school children at recess.

“When I take the two dogs with me, Stan gets the lion’s share of attention now because he’s the puppy. But some kids call out to Oliver, too. I’m proud of those kids for seeing that Oliver needs attention, too. That’s a neat thing to see.”

So is the overall connection that Oliver and Stan have with parishioners.

“Every place I’ve been with them, people love them,” Father Pondo says. “There are people I know who have been more receptive to me as a priest and a person because I have a dog. Dogs have an amazing ability to create bridges.”

A presence of love

Father Michael Keucher shares the story of what happened when a woman saw his dog—Sister Glory—playing near St. Joseph Church in Shelbyville. The sight of the joyful, white-haired Husky raised the woman’s spirits and even played a part in helping her start the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program to enter into the full communion of the Church.

Sister Glory’s influence is so pervasive in the parish that Father Keucher has made her a member of his staff, giving her the title of “director of hospitality.”

“She’s the first one to greet people, and they love to see her,” he says. “When families come in to plan funerals or for counseling for something, Glory just brings comfort and consolation to people.

“I’ll ask people if it’s OK for her to be in the office during those times. She can tell when someone needs extra love. She’ll curl up underneath their feet or she’ll get on her back for a belly rub. She adds immensely to the presence of love in this parish.”

Her presence especially made a difference during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. During one of the first Masses that Father Keucher livestreamed to his parishioners when churches across the archdiocese were closed, Sister Glory could be seen scurrying around in the background—a scene that led a number of parishioners to share with their pastor how much that uplifted them.

“She brought a sense of joy and the feeling that everything would be fine,” Father Keucher says.

That feeling grew during the first Easter of the pandemic when Father Keucher and Sister Glory boarded the parish school bus and delivered Easter candy to many of the children and youths of the parish.

Calling Sister Glory “the most famous and beloved dog in Shelbyville,” Father Keucher notes that when she occasionally runs away to tour the community, even the local police have joined the search for her.

Still, Father Keucher says that Sister Glory may have the greatest impact on him.

“Sister Glory has taught me to be a better priest. She is all present, energetic, loving, obedient, faithful—and come to think of it, I strive after those same qualities. She puts them on display for me and for all of us every day.” †

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