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When a Los Angeles pastor decided his church needed a boost in membership, he did a little soul searching and figured out that man's best friend should be part of the fold. Gloria Hillard dropped in on the Sunday service that's attracting new parishioners and their faithful pooches.

(Soundbite of dog bark)

GLORIA HILLARD: You could see most of those arriving for this Sunday service were not regular churchgoers. For one thing, it took them a while to get settled in their seats

Ms. EMMA SCZESNIAK: Good boy. Sit.

HILLARD: That's Emma Sczesniak. Her dogs, Marley and Midnight, are on leashes.

Ms. SCZESNIAK: They're both rescue dogs.

HILLARD: Midnight is a black, fluffy dog that towers over Marley, who may have some terrier in him.

Ms. SCZESNIAK: My pets have always been my babies, so it seemed like something I might be interested in.

HILLARD: Another parishioner, Vicky Rambow, is tethered to Sadie and Mac. Both dogs are low to the ground. Vicky guesses they're corgi and something. She says a church service that welcomes dogs is just what she was looking for.

Ms. VICKY RAMBOW: And I'll come as long as they do it.

HILLARD: Are you a regular churchgoer?

Ms. RAMBOW: I'm not. So this has caused me to come back.

HILLARD: Sadie and Mac tangle their leashes on their way into the small chapel located next to the church's main sanctuary. A few of the parishioners are in pews, but most are in folding chairs next to doggie beds of various sizes.

The music has begun and the congregation is getting a little rambunctious. Someone stepped in the water dish, and a border collie wants to play with the poodle mix. It takes a few resounding stays and then it's time to pray.

Reverend TOM EGGEBEEN (Covenant Presbyterian Church): Dear God, thank you. Thank you for the occasion of this...

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Rev. EGGEBEEN: Thank you for the remarkable character of your creation. And thank you for all the gifts that you have given to us, including our four-footed friends. We pray, oh God, your blessing for all of them.

HILLARD: Reverend Tom Eggebeen is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. He says traditionally churches have been slow to recognize the deep bond people have with their pets.

Rev. EGGEBEEN: The question was raised by other people, you know, why dogs? Not only are they important family members, but there's more to it than that. They belong to God, too, by gum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: Eggebeen, himself a dog lover, says another question he's often asked is if he believes dogs have souls.

Rev. EGGEBEEN: I prefer to think of the Hebrew word nefesh for life. And when God created life, he blessed every dimension of it. So we share that with all the animals of the world.

HILLARD: Services like those offered at Covenant Presbyterian are part of a growing interest among people for whom pets are central to their lives.

Professor LAURA HOBGOOD-OSTER (Religion, Southwestern University): And they want to include them in their spiritual and religious lives as well.

HILLARD: Laura Hobgood-Oster is a professor of religion at Southwestern University. She conducted a survey that found more than 500 churches nationwide conduct annual blessings of pets and animals.

Prof. HOBGOOD-OSTER: And they very specifically said that in addition to showing that kind of creation care for more than just the human world, that they also were gearing these particular events towards growing their congregations.

HILLARD: Meanwhile, the congregation at Covenant Presbyterian has settled in for the sermon. Some are lounging on the floor. Others are sitting politely on the laps of their owners. All eyes are on the pastor, and they certainly appear to be all ears.

Rev. EGGEBEEN: The word dominion - one of the words related in our English language would be what? Anybody want to hazard a guess? Think of the word dominion in terms of God's love.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

HILLARD: Joanna and Robert Barnes, along with their dog Charlie, a small dog with white, silky fur, said they appreciate the message of the sermon.

Ms. JOANNA BARNES: I mean, this is, feels like it's as much for the dogs as it is for the owners.

HILLARD: They don't hand out hymnals at this service � it would be just too much, what, with holding leashes or a dog in your lap. But the dogs did get biscuits. And by the time the closing hymn was sung, the pit bull in the second row was curled up next to the schnauzer.

(Soundbite of music)

Rev. EGGEBEEN: (Singing) Praise God furthermore blessings flow�

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

(Soundbite of music)

Rev. EGGEBEEN: (Singing) God's creatures (unintelligible).

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