The most recent addition to the ministry team at Grace United Methodist Church walked down the church’s center aisle, picked out a pew and climbed up to lay down.

Titus is a cocoa brown Labradoodle with soft eyes and an inquisitive face. As a trained therapy dog, he has the tools to offer comfort in the most difficult of situations.

Gently petting the teddy-bear soft fur on his head, your breathing becomes more relaxed, your heartbeat slows down and stress seems to melt away.

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“His job is to help people feel better, and give them a sense of comfort and companionship,” said Jenothy Rather, associate pastor at Grace and Titus’ handler.

In Titus, Grace United Methodist Church has a trained companion that can help sooth and comfort in life’s most difficult moments.

The dog has helped teenagers mourn the death of a classmate, and laid beside patients in the hospital as they recover. He is present at weekly services, climbing up on the pews and laying his head in people’s laps who call for him.

His presence has added a new dimension to the church’s activities and provided a unique way to reach people throughout the community.

“In our visits with families, children in trauma, autistic children and others, there is something that takes place between Titus and people. It allows us an entry point as caregivers,” said Andy Kinsey, senior pastor at Grace United Methodist Church. “It’s been a joy to see that transformation take place.”

The use of therapy dogs has become a widely used tool in mental and physical health situations. The dogs have been employed by the military to help soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and with children who have been victims of abuse to put them at ease.

G.H. Herrmann Funeral Home, a Center Grove-area funeral home, employs therapy dogs to help grieving family members.

Researchers have found that the animals can help reduce agitation in patients with dementia. The American Heart Association has found that a 12-minute visit with a dog helped lower blood pressure in healthy and hypertensive patients, as well as decreasing anxiety in hospitalized patients.

Something about interacting with a dog makes most people feel better, Rather said.

“There’s that presence where Titus is happy to see you no matter what,” she said. “Maybe they’re lonely, or they miss that physical touch. He’s super-soft, and I think he helps them feel good.”

Titus is assigned to the church’s caring ministry team. While some members of the team send out cards to members or visit people in hospitals, Titus is another layer of that, Rather said.

The ministry schedules weekly visits throughout the community, and now Titus goes along on those visits.

When he receives the “visit” command, Titus comes in and lays his head on a person’s lap. Then when he’s asked to cuddle, he puts both of his front feet on person’s legs so he can get closer.

If a patient wants, Titus can get up on a hospital bed for added comfort.

“His specialty is visiting people in schools and nursing homes and hospitals,” Rather said. “The great thing about it is, he doesn’t care who you are, what your background is, what you have going on. He’s just happy to be around people.”

Rather acquired Titus in February, and has been working to get ready as a therapy dog ever since. She was connected with him at Meadow Park Labradoodles, a breeder and training facility in Fountain City.

Rather started pushing for a therapy dog program at Grace for the past two years. While therapy dogs have been used implemented by the military to help soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, and in medical facilities to ease patients, no local churches were using dogs in their ministry.

“I read about how some churches elsewhere were doing it, and started really thinking about how we could use that here, how he could be implemented into our existing caring ministries,” Rather said.

She researched what it could take to bring a therapy dog to church, wrote a proposal for Grace’s leadership and investigated grants that could go toward purchasing and training the animal.

Working with a trainer, Rather went through seven litters of puppies before Titus exhibited the right demeanor for a therapy dog.

“He’s curious, calm and laid back. But he’s still a puppy — if you take the vest off and go to the park, he’ll romp around and play,” Rather said.

When Titus was only 4 weeks old, he started his preparations. He was handled by a wide variety of people, starting with the trainer’s family and expanding to more diverse groups.

The goal was to get Titus socialized to gain as much experience around crowds and people as he could.

“Grandkids and extended family would come over to play with the puppies. They would have kids just sit in a circle and pass the puppies around to play with them,” Rather said.

Four months of training commenced, where Titus was introduced to loud noises, unique sounds and any distraction trainer Julie Case could think of.

The dog learned commands and signals. He was taken to parks, grocery stores and busy city streets to expose him to a wide range of distractions.

Titus technically belongs to Grace, but lives with Rather and her family, since she’s the primary handler. A secondary handler, Amanda Ott, fills in if Rather is unavailable.

He often comes to church with Rather, greeting them and walking up and down the pews. When children leave for their Superchurch breakout during worship services, he often accompanies them.

The dog is often at Grace’s preschool, playing with and nuzzling up to the kids.

“Titus has been one of those surprises as we’ve realized how he as a dog and a creature of God can make people feel more comfortable,” Kinsey said.

When the church conducted its Winshape camp in late June, Rather and Titus were out every morning circulating around the groups of young people. While the children listened to music, threw footballs and played teambuilding games, Titus was constantly on the lookout for a quick pat on the head.

“He loves kids. Any times we’re here for worship or a gathering, he tends to gravitate toward them,” Rather said.

But Titus’ reach has extended beyond Grace’s walls. He has become a regular at all local schools to be part of the Study Buddy programs. For the Girls on the Run clubs at Franklin elementary and intermediate schools, Titus was the unofficial mascot for participants.

During a visit to the Franklin Active Adult Center, Titus drew a full house of people wanting to interact with him.

“We had the largest number of people ever for a pitch-in,” said Bev Bonsett, office manager for the Active Adult Center. “People really seemed to enjoy him. (Rather) got up and demonstrated some of the commands that Titus knows. She made a presentation, and then walked around to let him meet people. He was a big hit.”

If there’s an emergency or tragedy, Titus and Rather are on call. When Franklin teenager Kaleb Buck died from cancer in April, Titus was part of the counseling effort at Franklin schools for students and adults struggling with grief.

“At one point, one of the high school girls said, ‘A puppy makes everything better.’ So that was really special,” Rather said.

Autism therapy groups, nursing homes, suicide support groups and hospitals have all reached out to Grace about enlisting Titus.

“I was prepared for the church family to be excited for him. But I wasn’t quite prepared for how the community outside the church has wanted to work with him,” Rather said. “He’s been a great bridge to the community.”

At a glance

Comfort dog ministry

Where: Grace United Methodist Church, Franklin

What: An outreach of the church’s caring ministry, visiting people and providing relief for those ailing physically, emotionally or mentally.

Who: Titus, a 7-month-old Labradoodle

Handler: Jenothy Rather, associate pastor at Grace United Methodist Church

Benefits: Therapy and comfort dogs have been provide to lower blood pressure and decrease anxiety in people.

Responsibilities: Titus accompanies Rather in visits throughout the community, working with elderly patients in hospitals, members of the church who are sick or in need of physical comfort and those who are grieving. Rather has also provided her services to local schools, special needs children and other community groups.

Information: franklingrace.org

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.