BANGOR, Maine — People sometimes share things with the Rev. Arlene M. Tully they wouldn’t ordinarily tell her because Kirby the Ministry Dog is at the pastor’s side.
“I was in a restaurant and the waitress asked me about the dog,” she said earlier this month. “As we talked, she told me that she had just had to put her dog to sleep. She told me that no one understood the grief she was experiencing.
“He’s a catalyst for those kinds of conversations,” said Tully, the pastor of the First United Methodist Church on Essex Street. “I’m not sure that just because I’m a pastor she would have opened up that quickly but because of the dog, she could confide in me about her deep loss.”
Technically, 2½ -year-old Kirby is a service dog trained to work in a facility, in his case, a church. A golden retriever and Labrador retriever mix, he was trained by Canine Companions for Independence at its campus in Medford, New York. He is the only facility dog the nonprofit organization has placed in Maine.
“It’s all about the dog,” Tully said of how people react when they meet her and Kirby. “I’m just the handler. He is the door through which I can engage people.”
He accompanies the minister everywhere — to Sunday services and the weekly community meal at the church, to hospitals and nursing homes, to visit shut-ins and to private meetings with congregants, as long as he is welcome.
At a recent community meal, Kirby worked the room as if he were running for political office. He put his paws in the lap of a man who vigorously scratched the dog behind his ear and thanked him in American Sign Language. When children go down on the floor, Kirby joined them, sometime licking their hands and faces.
The dog obeys voice commands. If Tully tells him to “visit,” he will put his head in the lap of a person sitting or lying down. “Lap” means he should put his paws in someone’s lap. “Push” tells him to open an automatic door by pushing the handicap button.
“Together, we have an instant bridge to people that I alone might not have otherwise,” she said.
That is one of the reasons the Suffolk County district attorney’s office in Boston now has Indy working as its facility dog, according to Debra Dougherty, executive director of the program in the northeast region. Indy was profiled earlier this month in the Boston Globe. About the same age as Kirby, he was described as “the first ‘facility dog’ to be placed in a Massachusetts district attorney’s office or any governmental agency in New England.”
The dog has helped investigators build trust with young victims of sexual assault, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley told the Globe.
The training of facility dogs is a small part of what Canine Companions does, Dougherty said. For the most part, it trains service dogs to work with people with disabilities such as Michael Chasse, 32, of Presque Isle.
Chasse, who was paralyzed from the shoulders down in 2007 in a skiing accident, has had Caleb since the spring of 2011.
“He helps me with a lot of physical stuff and allows me to have a higher level of independence than I would alone,” Chasse said Saturday in a telephone interview. “If I drop something like my cellphone he can pick it up and give it to me. He can open doors for me. He can open the fridge and get me a drink.”
Caleb, who is now 5½, also is a good ice breaker with people, Chasse said.
“I think people in general aren’t always comfortable with those with disabilities,” he said. “They may feel like they don’t know what to say, but they come over and want to talk about the service dog. He’s made an incredible difference in my life and brought me a lot of happiness.”
Canine Companions has its own breeding program at its headquarters in California, Dougherty said Friday. When they are 8 weeks old, the dogs live for about 18 months with volunteers, who teach them basic commands. The dogs then move to one of six locations where they undergo an additional six months of training and learn more than 50 commands.
Just four out of 10 dogs complete the program and are paired with human companions, according to Dougherty. The humans spend two weeks working with the dog and must be recertified to continue in the program. Legally, Canine Companions retains ownership of the dogs.
Training and caring for a dog is a lot of work but worth the effort, according to Tully.
“Kirby is a living, breathing metaphor for God’s love,” the minister said. “The way he expresses love is as unconditional as God’s love. He instantly and fully embraces every person that he meets and that is a more accurate metaphor for God’s love than human love. Human love is conditional.”
Tully, 57, took over the reins at the Essex Street church in July. She grew up Roman Catholic in Rhode Island but left the church while a college student. While she was in her early 30s, Tully began attending a United Methodist Church. After 25 years working in restaurant management, she entered Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, and graduated in 2001.
Kirby is Tully’s second “ministry dog.” Her first was a female named Allegra. She worked with the minister since ordination in 2001 until Allegra retired in 2011. The dog died nearly two years later. Kirby came to live with Tully in February while she was pastor of Pleasant Street United Methodist Church in Waterville.
Tully, who previously served Maine congregations in Randolph and East Pittston said that in every location, the dogs have helped her get to know people in and out of church.
In Bangor, Tully replaced the Rev. Randall Chretien who retired in 2013 after 18 years as senior pastor.
“We are thankful that Arlene was appointed to be our minister and we look forward to learning and growing together,” Elizabeth Field, a member of the congregation, said of the new pastor. “She is proving to be a caring, supportive pastor who is already involved in many church programs and her sermons are interesting, pragmatic and thought-provoking messages. Kirby adds an extra measure of pleasure or comfort as he accompanies Pastor Arlene to many interactions and events.”
Tully joked that Kirby is a lot like her congregants.
“He sleeps through my sermons like everyone else, but he gets to close his eyes,” she said.
First United Methodist Church offers two services on Sunday, an informal worship program at 8:30 a.m. and a traditional service at 10:30 a.m. The nursery and Sunday school is offered during the 10:30 service. There is a community meal, free to the public, every Thursday from 4 to 6 pm.
The church also houses Memory Joggers and My Friend’s Place, day programs for adults with memory loss or more advanced dementia. For more information visit www.fumcbangor.org or call 945-9567.