A while back, an acquaintance asked if I’d seen a dog at Mass recently. Apparently, she had seen, during Sunday Mass, a lady carrying a small dog with her in a bag when she went up to receive Communion. Now in the interest of full disclosure here, I have to tell you that I’ve always been a fan of dogs, having been trained and owned by several of them over the years, including our currently reigning monarch, a Yorkie-Poo mix named “Joy.” Thinking about this situation, though, raised some questions about what an apparent lapdog would be doing in church, whether it was a real service dog or simply a pet, and what the policies of the Church might be regarding dogs in Mass.
Many of us probably have seen service dogs in public places, including at Mass. At a parish where we lived previously, one family trained dogs to become service dogs and we would see them every weekend with a well-behaved golden retriever or two in Mass. From my family’s perspective, the dogs were not the source of any distraction, nor of any disruptions, during the liturgy. Just the other day, I saw what appeared to be a guide dog in our local parish—again, a well-behaved dog with its master, in a pew near the back of the church.
Standards Among Dioceses?
In checking with a few dioceses in the United States, I have found that there are no hard and fast rules regarding this matter—as with most organizations, they all attempt to follow the applicable laws regarding access for trained service dogs. Many don’t have a specific diocesan policy dealing with service dogs, so it generally is left up to the pastor’s discretion on a case by case basis. In checking with a couple of dioceses in the UK and Australia, I found similar positions being taken.
One priest here in Colorado told me he personally had not run into any problems with this issue and is familiar with one veteran of the armed forces who brings a dog to Mass with him that apparently was prescribed for him due to his PTSD condition. That same pastor had heard of a case where another priest suspected something funny going on when a bride insisted on bringing a dog to her wedding at his church but was somewhat ambiguous about what services the had been trained to provide.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to tell at a glance whether a dog truly is trained as a real service dog, or if the dog is just a companion dog, (that is, a “pet,” in other words). Merely putting a vest on Woofy or Fluffy does not make him or her a service dog. A “service dog,” according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, is “…any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items…”
Service dogs are trained to do some specific tasks that benefit their disabled owners. “Psychiatric service” dogs have been trained to perform real tasks for owners—not parlor tricks. On the other hand, an “emotional support” dog is one which provides comfort or emotional support for the owner by virtue of its presence, but not because it is trained to do some specific task. The dog may be considered very valuable for and by its owner, but a service dog it is not. There is probably no denying the fact that a loyal canine friend can provide us with lots of emotional comfort. nonjudgmental companionship, and some version of what appears to be unconditional love. Old Ruff or little Minnie will be there, awaiting our return home with a doggy smile and a wagging tail, but—no matter how much comfort they give us—unless they are trained specifically to help us function more effectively around some validly diagnosed disability, they are not service dogs.
The actual, correct classification of that furry little friend with whom one might wish to share the liturgy should make a very real difference as to its admissibility. Clearly, if a person has gone to the effort to train or have trained for them a qualified service dog that helps with specific tasks or functions due to some disability of that person, it would seem that the dog should be allowed in most public places with its owner, including at Mass. This, of course, presumes that the dog is trained adequately and will be well-behaved in that environment.
On the other hand, some people are allergic to pet dander. Even a well-behaved, highly trained canine may cause them from mild to more extreme levels of discomfort. Yet there should be some possible solution that would allow both the person who needs the service dog and the person who is allergic to it to both partake of the liturgy of the Mass. Perhaps service dogs and their owners might have a separate area reserved for them, with signage indicating that is the case in order to allow anyone who has a problem with dogs to sit elsewhere. For that matter, many breeds are what is known as hypoallergenic, or relatively less likely to cause allergic reactions. This category includes Poodles, Maltese, Bichon Frise, Labradoodles, Schnauzers and various terrier breeds. Although not totally eliminating allergy problems, they might minimize them somewhat.
Concerns About Dogs In Church
A very real concern about having animals of any kind in church, particularly during the Mass, is the potential distraction to the faithful during their time of worship. We already face many distractions, from the noisy neighbors kibitzing in the pew behind us, to the inappropriately dressed young persons in the pew in front of us. Having a poorly behaved animal, particularly a pet that is not a service dog, in Mass just cannot lead to any good, even for the owner of the animal. Considering that most people who attend Mass on Sundays probably only make it to Mass that one day of the week, do we really want to take the chance of creating a suboptimal worship experience for those around us?
That doesn’t seem to be the underlying reason God made these creatures and gave us dominion over them, does it? Nor does having a priest bring his pet with him when he celebrates Mass. In one reported case a priest was in the habit of bringing his pet dog with him to the early morning, weekday Mass he celebrated. Many parishioners thought it was fine to have a pet wandering around in the sanctuary, with his dog tags jingling during the proclamation of the Gospel. Based on information from one of the parishioners, this apparently was not a service dog, but a pet. However, in another example, the priest brought a service dog with him when he celebrated Mass because the priest was a diabetic. The dog could detect when his owner’s blood sugar was getting low and alert the priest to address it on the spot.
The bottom line here is that looks can be deceiving. It can be difficult to tell if a dog truly is a service dog or just a pet. For those of us who observe unobtrusive dogs at Mass, adopting a nonjudgmental attitude, and staying focused on Our Lord during the celebration probably is the preferred approach for us to take. For those of us with dogs at home, it should go without saying that, unless the dog is a real service dog, Fido needs to stay at home during Mass so we can focus on Our Lord during that brief time together with Him. Even if we attend Mass every day, it only amounts to about an hour a day that we are separated from Spunky or Gilda—that’s not too much to ask, is it?