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By Jeff Gottlieb
Los Angeles Times

Posted on: Saturday, February 13, 2010

Churches going pup-friendly

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LOS ANGELES As the Presbyterian service was about to start, one of the congregants was being disruptive, making a spectacle of himself once again on a Sunday.

But that's what other members of the Los Angeles church have come to expect from Mr. Booby.

At Covenant Presbyterian Church in the Westchester neighborhood, dogs like Mr. Booby are welcome congregants at the Sunday night services, where howling and sudden bouts of scratching may interrupt prayers, and the collection plate comes accompanied by treats for poodles and golden retrievers alike. And the Rev. Tom Eggebeen said he fully understands if some of the congregants need to step outside now and again.

The idea behind the service, Eggebeen said, is to make it more comfortable for people to attend the church, which has 120 members, discounting up to a dozen dogs that generally attend services. Cats and other animals are not permitted, perhaps out of a belief that of God's many creatures, dogs probably need more ministering.

"The heart of the whole thing has been to provide a worship service for the entire family, including the four-footed friends. ... Their pets are very, very important to them and virtually comprise a member of family," he said. "I wouldn't be in the pulpit on Sunday mornings and say, 'Leave your children home.' "

More than a gimmick or an effort to build attendance, the dog services are part of a movement by churches to recognize the emotional bond between humans and their pets.

Animal blessings, memorial services and grief counseling for the loss of a pet are increasingly common in many denominations.

Underwood Hills Presbyterian Church in Omaha has been holding its Paws for Prayers service since December 2008, but is ending the program because of dwindling attendance, both human and animal.

Underwood Hills pastor Becky Balestri said she has gotten more jokes than objections, such as people wondering whether the gathering song will be "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"

Laura Hobgood-Oster, a professor of religion and environmental studies at Southwestern University in Texas, said the annual blessing of animals in churches has been going on for several decades.

She said dogs began noticeably attending a small number of churches only three or four years ago, but she has found a 19th-century newspaper article from a small Texas town that noted well-trained dogs going to church.

Eggebeen said he has gotten no objection from the Presbyterian leadership.

"If we were sacrificing chickens, then the hierarchy might respond, but essentially Presbyterian congregations have a great deal of latitude," he said.

Though he has received cards and letters from around the country congratulating him on the dog service, he also has received "some really hateful things."

One writer on a religious Web site said that people like Eggebeen "promulgate a false Gospel."

"The first step into church membership or the reason for attending a church service should be conviction and not comfort," he wrote. "If you suddenly feel called to hear the Word of God because Fido can come along, then reconsider the purpose of your trip."

On a recent Sunday evening, 10 people and eight dogs joined Mr. Booby at the Canines at Covenant service in Westchester.

The dogs were on leashes, and each was provided with a fake lamb's-wool pad to lie on while owners sat on folding chairs.

A pair of candles flickered on a table. When the owners placed money in the collection plate, they received a dog biscuit in exchange.

The animals sat quietly during the 30-minute service, except for the occasional bark from Mr. Booby.

Dogs, though, are after all, dogs.

When one begins to bark, others sometimes join in, like a minister leading an off-key choir.

"We sing 'Amazing Grace' and that seems to settle them down," Eggebeen said.

At one service, a dog became so rambunctious that its owner had to take him outside. "But I've seen that with unruly children," the pastor said.

Mr. Booby's owner, Leonard Yee, said his bulldog mix looks forward to the service.

"He loves it," Yee said. "He recognizes it when we're in the parking lot. He knows where the room is. He wants to see all his dog friends."

As in the humans-only service earlier in the day, there are prayer requests, but in this case, dogs are included.

"For the rescues that don't make it, for George, and for all the people who help homeless animals," said one request.

Another asked people to pray for "Sharon, for her lost dog Buddy."

Yee said he planned to ask for a prayer for Mr. Booby, who recently had knee surgery.