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Mr. March 2021 - Cowboy
A spiritual leader with four legs

S
unday mornings at St. Thomas Episcopal Church finds Father Bruce Cheney on the dais, speaking with his congregation. Nearby, sporting a bright orange Service Dog harness, lies Cowboy. Like his human, Cowboy also wears a white collar to work.

With his harness on, Cowboy is calm, alert, and ready to help.

In the sanctuary, Cowboy is thoroughly professional. He greets congregants, calms anxieties, and provides a soothing presence for those in need. At home, he’s all dog: full of energy, chasing toys around the yard, and lazing on the porch.

For his soothing presence, his ability to transition from work to home, and the joy he brings his humans, Cowboy is the March Pet of the Month.

An inquisitive Cowboy greets TownDock at the office door.
Cowboy rests on his bed in Bruce’s office at St. Thomas Episcopal.

Father Bruce Cheney wasn’t always Father Bruce. His road to the church went through three branches of the US military first. He began with eight years in the Navy, one in the Army Reserves, and then 23 in the Coast Guard stationed on the east coast.

But his faith had always been drawing him to the Seminary. “That was always a lifetime quest,” he said.

As his life was transitioning from the military into the clergy, Bruce rescued a Border Collie he called Jack from an abusive situation. Jack went with him through Seminary and into his first calling, becoming his daily companion at the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newport News, Virginia.

Cowboy at his professional best during Sunday morning services.

Jack would sit, leashed, with different people in the congregation during services. “He was a good shepherd’s dog,” said Bruce.

When Jake passed, Bruce knew he wanted another just like him. One he could train into a hospital visitation therapy dog. When he contacted the Atlantic Region Central Border Collie Rescue, he had a particular dog in mind. He filled out the application, explaining the role he had in mind for his new rescue.

Wally Umbach greets Cowboy before services.

“You don’t want him,” the rescue told him, about the dog Bruce thought would be his. “They said, ‘this dog, Cowboy, he’s the one you want.’”

Cowboy was about 1 year old, a mix of Border Collie and Bernese Mountain Dog. He had signs of abuse – a patch of bare skin on his neck from an ingrown collar. But he was the dog Bruce didn’t know he needed. This young dog had the perfect temperament as both a service and therapy dog. Bruce decided to train Cowboy for both roles.

Cowboy gets ready to play keep-away with Bruce.

“He’s attention seeking, which is perfect for a therapy dog.” says Bruce. “He’ll walk around a room, nudging elbows to get people to pet him.” Training began immediately. Cowboy excelled, though “the hardest things for him was the sit – stay [command], because he always wants to be where I am.” Eight months of training later, Bruce and Cowboy went through testing from the Alliance of Therapy dogs.

“There were two tests,” says Bruce, “where they were paraded through hospital rooms with six other dogs.” Tests took place at a VA hospital, a few weeks apart. “The dogs have to be able to handle any dog in any situation.”

Cowboy passed his tests without a problem. Though objects with wheels (like wheelchairs and grocery carts) aren’t his favorite, “he just wants to be away from it,” Bruce makes sure he gets weekly exposure when grocery shopping to keep his manners and training up-to-date.

Off work and ready to play.
After popping several tennis balls, Cowboy now has more indestructible toys to play with.

Throughout his training, and after, Cowboy became Bruce’s new companion at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Newport News. There was a large ministry of feeding the homeless. Cowboy would go from table to table, seeking pets and trying to soothe any anxieties.

But as the congregation dwindled, the diocese decided to close the nearly 140 year old church. Bruce and Cowboy were looking for another job.

Father Bruce’s prior church, St. Paul’s Episcopal in Newport news closed after nearly 140 years. He can be seen in the background of the front page photo.

Eventually, they interviewed for the position in Oriental. Bruce, his wife Katherine, and Cowboy all showed up for the meeting. They were accepted as a whole and Bruce began work at St. Thomas on the last Sunday in July 2020, in the middle of a pandemic.

These days, Cowboy falls into his routine. He greets a few parishioners before the service, then follows Bruce onto the dais. There he sits, leashed, and watches Father Bruce give the sermon.

There have been a few guests to the church who are afraid of dogs. Cowboy has a knack for identifying and seeking out the most anxious people, says Bruce, including the fearful. But Cowboy’s calm demeanor – and the presence of the leash – “it makes them happy.”

Cowboy prefers ‘keep-away’ to ‘fetch.’
Play time necessitates some heavy drinking. “He’s so sloppy with water,” Bruce says.

When work is over, Cowboy sets aside his duties. He remains well-mannered, but embraces his playful side. Bruce calls this ‘dog-dog mode’, using one of Cowboy’s nicknames. “He likes to play keep-away, not fetch,” says Bruce, as he throws one indestructible chew toy to distract Cowboy while retrieving another. “He’s popped a few tennis balls.”

Inside the ball is one of Cowboy’s favorite stuffed, crinkly toys.

Cowboy’s exercise means exercise for Bruce and Kate. Every day, they try to walk him three miles in the morning. “Cowboy,” says Bruce, “would prefer to rest.” Inside, Cowboy has his favorite stuffed toys – most recently one that crinkles when he chews it. Outside, he prefers resilient KONG toys and a hard plastic blue ball. Cowboy encourages Bruce to run after him and his toys, or try to negotiate to get them back.

To keep Cowboy’s mind sharp, Bruce will stuff toys into the blue ball. Cowboy has to figure out how to retrieve them.

Bruce and Cowboy on the porch of their home. Playing keep-away is tiirng work for both.

Cowboy also has a taste for bird seed, eating the leftovers that spill, or are thrown, from the feeders onto the ground. His seed habit also helps to keep the squirrels out of the feeders. He’ll chase the squirrels, says Bruce, “but he’s never caught them, thank the Lord.”

Cowboy knows when it’s time to play and time to work. Bruce continues to positively reinforce his training, waiting for the day they can return to hospital visitations. “Not only was it good for the patients,” Kate, Bruce’s wife said, “but for the doctors and nurses, too.” Cowboy went with them to get their COVID vaccines, and “Cowboy was a hit with the nurses and patients there.”

Cowboy in his favorite place: the porch.

For his professionalism, his work ethic, and his playful and calming nature, TownDock.net names Cowboy the March Pet of the Month.

Celebrity Most Resembles: Spencer Tracy
Spencer Tracy and Cowboy
Likes: To soothe the anxious and to play with crinkle toys
Dislikes: Anything with wheels, especially the UPS truck
Loves: Bird seed and chasing games
Future Plans: To visit patients in the hospital once again


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Know a pet that is a standout? Send in some details and a photo to pet@towndock.net. Tell why that pet deserves the coveted TownDock.net Pet of the Month Prize Package --- accolades, a pat on the head (snakes excluded) and a box of Milk Bones ( or snack suitable for the species).

We regret that we cannot offer a college scholarship to Pet Of The Month winners.


Animals caught near the HarborCam attempting to suck up to the judges will be disqualified.