When Odin and Ranger walk into a room, you notice them. The brief initial twinge of fear you might feel from their enormous size immediately dissipates by virtue of their broad smiles and lumbering demeanor. That, and their fluffiness. The two Newfoundlands look like oversized teddy bears, and that assumption isn’t wrong, as they warmly accept snuggles from anyone and even disperse hugs when they are told it’s OK.
What may surprise you about the dogs is that the two of them have been in more United Methodist churches in the Mark Twain District than probably anyone other than District Superintendents. When they are not in church, they are out in the community doling out pawstoral care at nursing homes and hospitals.
The dogs aren’t doing this all on their own. Their owners, Bob and Sue Mitchell, are certified lay speakers that do a lot of pulpit supply and spend most of their Mondays and Tuesdays out in the community doing visits. They regularly go to nine nursing homes and have been to more than a dozen United Methodist churches with their dogs.
The Mitchells were New Yorkers who retired to Florida. One day Bob called his pastor in Naples and asked if it would be OK if he brought his dogs to church. His pastor replied that all of God’s creation was welcome in the house of the Lord. So, the Mitchells brought their dogs, which were a big hit, and their pet ministry was sparked.
After they decided that the Florida life wasn’t for them, they moved to Hannibal and continued doing ministry with their dogs. COVID-19 put a
pause on their preaching and visitation ministry for a couple of years, but now they are back in full swing. In May and June, they were preaching in seven different churches in nine weeks’ time.
At nursing homes, sometimes they meet with a group in an activity center and sometimes they go room to room. “I want to talk about Jesus, and a nursing home is a perfect place to do that,” Sue said. “The dogs are a good ice breaker.” The presence of the dogs leads to relaxation and a smile.
Recently at a nursing home, they met someone whose mother (who had been a resident of the home) had died the week before, and the daughter had come back to the nursing home to meet the dogs. She told the Mitchells when her mother was dying, she hoped Odin and Ranger would be OK.
One time one of the dogs, which is usually silent, barked, and a man came out of his room to see them. The nurses said he hadn’t spoken or been out of his room in three months.
“It’s amazing to see that kind of impact and the happiness that this brings. It’s so simple,” Sue Mitchell said. “If I end up in a nursing home, I hope I have someone who cares come in to see me.”
The Newfoundland breed is known as “gentle giants.” The dogs weigh 165 pounds and eat seven cups of kibble a day.
“They are very easy to deal with,” Sue said.
But part of that comes from intensive conditioning at an early age. Robert explained how from the time that they were little puppies, he would make it a point to touch them all over, every day, even in places that dogs don’t normally like to be touched, like in their ears. He knew there would come a time during exams with veterinarians that the dogs would need to be touched in ways other than normal petting, and he wanted to make sure they were accustomed to all kinds of touch because you couldn’t just hold them down for an exam.
That conditioning worked. The dogs can be handled all over now, and they don’t mind at all. That also comes in handy around children. When the Mitchells are doing pulpit supply in churches, they ask the children to come up during children’s time, and they will lay back and use the dogs as giant pillows. Newfoundlands are known as nanny dogs.
“It takes them about 15 minutes to bond with a kid, and after that, they are owning and protecting the kid,” Robert said.
They can also handle big events. At a Blessing of the Backpacks service in Macon, the dogs greeted 137 children. They interacted with even more than that at an event at the hospital.
Although the Mitchells are quite aware that wherever they go, the dogs will be the star of the show, they still aren’t phoning it in when it comes to their role. They go all-in when doing their visitation ministry.
During a recent Halloween, they went with a Wizard of Oz theme. Sue was in costume as the wicked witch, and Robert was Dorothy. They also dress the part for occasions like St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Memorial Day.
The couple has been doing pulpit supply for 35 years. They have been doing their visitation ministry with dogs to places like nursing homes on a regular basis since they retired in 2011 and were doing it on a more limited basis before that. Robert said visiting is a simple act of compassion that anyone can do. You don’t need to have giant dogs. You just need to show people you care.
“This got us closer to God and to people in our church,” Sue said. “You don’t have to have Newfoundlands. Everyone can do something. It’s needed. There needs to be more lay servants and certified lay speakers. It isn’t good enough to think you can just leave everything up to the pastor.”