They snooze during the sermons and sprawl in the aisles. Their tails wag whenever parishioners stop to acknowledge them with a gentle pat on the head or a few strokes of affection.
These churchgoing dogs aren’t service animals or social-therapy pets. They are welcome members of the congregation at Thanksgiving Lutheran Church in Santa Rosa, where the “Come as You Are” motto extends to people and their pooches.
The dogs accompany their families to the hourlong Sunday morning service, with shelter rescues and championship show dogs among the four-legged visitors to the Fulton Road campus.
There’s a row reserved for those who don’t want to sit near dogs during worship, but it’s typically vacant. Self-proclaimed “cat people” are happy to see the dogs; even those who aren’t animal lovers find a connection with the furry guests.
“I’m not really a dog person, I’m not really an animal person,” said Sandy Koppen, the congregational president who came up with the idea to welcome dogs to church each week. “It’s fun. People really enjoy it, and the dogs seem to enjoy it.”
A sweet-faced Yorkie is credited with starting the tradition. When Kathy and Randy Easterling began attending Thanksgiving Lutheran Church in 2015, they took the “Come As You Are” invitation to heart. Their 6-pound dog, Sadie, was always with them, so why not bring the well-mannered pooch along to church?
Sadie snuggled into Kathy Easterling’s purse, and churchgoers welcomed the whole family with warmth and acceptance.
“Everybody was so nice and friendly. Everybody’s always been great,” Kathy Easterling said. “Nobody cared at all.”
Sadie showed up with the couple every Sunday for 2½ years, until January, when she died just short of her 13th birthday. Her legacy continues, with an average of seven to 10 dogs attending weekly services that typically bring together 40 worshippers.
Koppen said the congregation has hosted popular Blessing of the Animals services and held a special “Dog Days of Summer” program that inspired her to suggest opening services to dogs on a regular basis.
“Why don’t we make it a dog-friendly church?” she asked. “We’ve got concrete floors, so what the heck?”
Then-pastor the Rev. Jean Lebbert offered her support and welcomed dogs until she retired late last year. It’s been more than 18 months since dogs officially were invited to church, and Koppen can’t recall a complaint or a problem or even an “accident” during a service.
Lebbert said she’s heard of a pastor occasionally bringing a dog to church, but not a congregation with dogs in the sanctuary.
“We thought this was really unique,” she said. “It is for regular Sunday services.”
Paul Feiertag, a church member who doesn’t have a dog, is a fan of having dogs at church.
“We just loved it when they came,” he said. “I’ve never heard a complaint. It’s just made us better people.”
Dogs aren’t overlooked during the petitions, when parishioners pray for those in need. During a recent service, prayers were offered for a dog with liver cancer and for two “raisin-eating” dogs that ended up in emergency veterinary care.
The dogs also are noted in the official attendance records kept by the church. They are listed, too, in the church membership directory.