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Thursday, Apr 27, 2017
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Canines for Christ ministry delivers faith-based dog therapy

They were supposed to be getting ready for dance class. But the buzz in the room at Pyramid, an adult day training center, had nothing to do with learning to dance the flamenco for an upcoming show. "Gracie's coming! Gracie's coming!" one woman squealed. Terry Cone, performing arts coordinator, knew she was no match for the visitor. Rehearsal would have to wait. When Gracie makes her rounds, "every bit of discipline flies out the window. The class comes to a complete halt." The door opens and a vest-clad white Labrador, with owner Larry Randolph in tow, bounds through. It's a virtual love fest. About two dozen Pyramid students – all adults with moderate to severe developmental disabilities – crowd around the 3-year-old dog to stroke her fur or sneak a sloppy dog kiss. To make sure nobody gets left out, the four-legged visitor breaks away to lay her head on the laps of those in wheelchairs.
Gracie's expression says it all: This is heaven. The feeling is mutual. Eric Nelson, a rangy Pyramid student in his 40s, can't stop grinning. Gracie's bimonthly visits are a highlight for him and others at the center. He says it has taken him a while, but he has figured out what makes her so special. "Gracie works for God," he declares. "And when Gracie's here, God's here."   * * * * *   That was exactly Larry Randolph's idea when he started Canines for Christ. Four years ago, he says he got a "prompting" from God, out of nowhere, while doing his morning devotions. Larry, the voice said, I want you to start a dog therapy ministry to spread a message of love and compassion. Now Randolph, a devout Christian, considers himself a sensible, reasonable man. He served in the Coast Guard. He's a father of four grown children and nine grandkids. At the time, he was a successful commercial Realtor, serving on the board of directors of a development company. And though he liked dogs, he didn't have one at the time. "That's how God works," says Randolph, 64, with a laugh. "It doesn't matter how busy you are. He gives you challenges to see how you respond." Feeling a sense of urgency to heed the call, Randolph borrowed his daughter's amiable golden retriever, Cody, and began taking steps to start the ministry through his church, Van Dyke United Methodist in Lutz. He called it Canines for Christ, leaving no doubt that these animals and their owners had a higher purpose for their visits to hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and adult day care programs like Pyramid. The concept is not new. Numerous studies have shown the positive benefits patients experience from animal-assisted therapy: increased socialization, verbalization, alertness and positive mood alterations. Therapy Dog International, formed 35 years ago, has established criteria for evaluating dogs and awarding achievement levels based on service. Randolph's program adds another element; his teams offer prayer and spiritual encouragement – if requested. They never push their beliefs on the people they visit, but instead operate as a "ministry of presence." He says just having Christ's name on the T-shirts worn by volunteers is enough to let people know it's a faith-based initiative. They also leave behind calling cards reminding people that God loves them. At Pyramid, for example, Cone says the students look forward to the prayer circle that concludes Randolph and Gracie's visit. They gather as a group, holding hands. Those with verbal skills ask for a special prayer. "I want my aunt to feel better," says one older woman in a halting voice. "She's been sick for a while now." "I would like to feel better myself," another says. "I pray that Larry and Gracie comes every day!" a young man pipes up, and everyone bursts out laughing. Cone says she notices a difference in many of the students' behavior after a visit. Even the ones who were tentative about dogs at first are now animated and excited when the pair arrives. They've blossomed under "Larry's patience and Gracie's love." "This is the kind of ministry that makes them feel special and accepted," Cone says. "And it's not a one-way street. You look at Larry and Gracie, and you see the joy they're getting in return. It's been a real bonding experience for everyone." Randolph researched guidelines for therapy dogs, then developed his own criteria. Dogs in the program must be at least 2 years old and pass a Good Citizenship test developed by the American Kennel Club. They must be sociable, well-mannered and nonaggressive. Randolph goes with each dog and owner on their initial visit to make sure no other issues need to be resolved. While developing the program, he also began work on his own spiritual growth by taking courses to become a community chaplain through Corporate and Community Chaplains of America, and a "rapid-response" chaplain for disaster work through Billy Graham Ministries. After completing on-the-job training and testing, he's now certified in both areas. He says he gets signs all the time that following God's call was the right move to make. Take Gracie, for instance. Early on, while he and Cody were visiting with patients at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, a woman approached and inquired about the ministry. After Randolph told her the story, she looked at him and said, "I breed white Labs. And I'd like to donate one to your program." Her pups usually fetch about $1,500 each. She had a special one, eight weeks old, that had the perfect disposition for the ministry. The breeder's only request: Please call her Gracie. Randolph says the name is appropriate in so many ways. He never had to do any special training with Gracie; from the start, she seemed to know her role. No matter the situation, whether they're in a children's hospital ward with boisterous youngsters clamoring to pet her, or in a nursing care facility with dementia patients, she reacts in the same calm manner. Every person she encounters gets her undivided attention, from a wet-nosed kiss to her nonstop wagging tail. "She is amazing," he says. "That's why I call her God's dog. I'm just the caretaker."   * * * * *   Canines for Christ now claims 67 teams of humans and dogs serving about two dozen facilities in the Tampa Bay area, Randolph says. The ministry has since expanded to two other cities – Minneapolis and Cincinnati – and he expects more to come onboard. Rosemary Turner and Loki, a 2-year-old Sheltie, joined the ministry about a year ago. They make weekly visits to Manorcare, a Tampa skilled nursing center. The thing about her dog, she says, is that he's not overly affectionate. Until she puts on his Canines for Christ vest, that is. "It's like he knows he's going to work and his whole personality transforms," says Turner, who works at the University of South Florida. "We get to the center, and he makes a beeline for the residents' rooms. He goes right to their laps and soaks in all the attention. They love him and he loves them." She says Loki was born to be a therapy dog. She sees a lot of sad and lonely faces when they first arrive at Manorcare, but by the time her Sheltie traverses the halls and, yes, leaps on the beds of those who invite him, those forlorn looks are replaced by smiles. With the collapse of Florida's real estate market, Randolph's exit from the secular world and entry into fulltime volunteer ministry seemed perfectly timed. He was ready to give back. He has the freedom now to do something more meaningful with his life, from his therapy visits with Gracie to his recent trip to Alabama as a disaster relief chaplain giving spiritual support and assistance to tornado victims. "I had been blessed with a good career," he says. "But I can tell you this. I'm much happier now. I'm working for God now, not man." TBO.com, search keyword: Canines for Christ, to see Gracie in action on a WFLA-TV report. You can also learn more about the ministry and how to volunteer.

mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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