Doug Wagoner said there were “wheelchairs flying down the hall” the first time he brought his black Labrador, Gracie, into a local nursing home – and that was when Canines for Christ was born.
Wagoner said he and his wife, Suzie, have attended services at Good News Gathering for a number of years, and have always been involved in some type of ministry, although Canines for Christ is one of the more unique initiatives in which they’ve been involved.
“One day, I had a black lab puppy, and I was in town doing errands on a Saturday,” Doug Wagoner said. “I go visit this guy at a nursing home here, and I needed to stop in and see him but I didn’t want to take the dog home first, so I thought, ‘Well, what the heck, I’ll take her in with me.’ We just got bombarded with people. There were wheelchairs flying down the hall… I thought, ‘my goodness, what a ministry that would make.’”
Wagoner said he got permission from church leadership and began the ministry. Now, the team includes six dogs who make regular visits to nursing homes in the Hillsboro area.
“At this point, we have six dogs only, but we’ve got several more wanting to get involved,” Wagoner said.
According to Wagoner, in order for the canines to be covered by the church’s liability insurance, each dog must pass eight different tests over the course of six weeks, and be registered as “canine good citizens.”
Although, Wagoner said, even his own dog, Gracie, hardly fits that description while at home.
“If you see my little black lab sometimes, you wouldn’t think she’s a good citizen,” he joked. “She’s ornery.”
Wagoner said he’s heard from dog owners in Washington Court House and Greenfield who are interested in joining the ministry, prompting him to look at options for expansion.
“It just brings so much joy to everyone,” he said. “Once in a while, you’ll find a person who doesn’t like dogs, and that’s OK, but most of the time, they just crave those dogs… Oh, they go nuts.”
Wagoner said the group has backed off a little for the summer due to busy schedules, but they generally go out every week throughout the year to visit local nursing homes.
“We all go at the same time, so we just kind of bombard them,” he said. “It’s such a neat ministry. If we haven’t been back for a week or two, we’ll get calls asking when the dogs are coming back. We could be a lot busier and a lot bigger if we had nothing to do other than that.
“Most of the time, you hear all about their dogs. They say, ‘Oh, we had a dog on the farm…’ It just brings back memories of their dogs. And you always hear about all this, but I had never experienced it firsthand. My gosh, it’s just so rewarding for everybody involved.”
Wagoner said when one woman who shared a special connection with Gracie ended up in the hospital, Wagoner took the canine to her room for a visit.
“I thought she’d have a fit when Gracie came into the hospital room. It was really great,” he said.
Another woman shared a connection with a dog that helped her start talking again.
“She was sitting there holding a baby doll,” Wagoner said. “She kind of opened her eyes to look at the dog, and then she started to come to life a little bit. She petted it and petted it, and she wanted to hug her, and she talked a little more. We got ready to leave and the nurse said, ‘That’s the first time all day she’s said a word.’ Dogs bring that out in people. We’ve had story after story like that.”
Wagoner said all the dog owners involved in Canines for Christ have noticed their dogs are exhausted after visits – perhaps a side effect of the animals’ empathetic abilities.
“It wears the dogs out,” he said. “After about an hour, they can hardly make it to the car they’re so tired. It just drains them… Maybe spreading so much love is hard on them.”
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.