WASHINGTON - Under a hot sun and clear spring skies, Teddy and Logan joined Yoko and Bentley and a few dozen like them on the steps of an 80-year-old church in Washington, and cocked an ear.
They were at the National City Christian Church on Sunday for the fifth annual blessing of the dogs and, yes, Teddy and Logan, Yoko and Bentley are all dogs.
The blessing of the dogs is not to be confused with the blessing of the animals, which usually falls in the autumn on the feast of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment.
This particular blessing ceremony began as an unabashed way to introduce more people to the National City Christian church in Washington, which is considered the cathedral of the Disciples of Christ denomination, a U.S. branch of Christianity that was founded more than 200 years ago.
"A few years ago, we used to stand outside on a Sunday morning, greeting passersby and inviting them in to the church, and it seemed to us that just about everyone had a dog," senior pastor Stephen Gentle told AFP.
"At first we put water and biscuits outside to help us meet our neighbors and then we thought: wouldn't it be great to have a short service -- for dogs?"
And lo, the blessing of the dogs was born.
On Sunday, around two dozen dogs were present for the blessing, which began with Gentle intoning a prayer by Robert Runcie, the 102nd Archbishop of Canterbury, thanking God for creating animals "who can show affection which sometimes puts us to shame."
A few dogs barked as a choir that was assembled on the steps of the church sang "All Creatures of our God and King" and the Reverend Beverly Goines read from the scripture -- Psalm 148, which includes a line about "beasts, and all cattle; creeping things, and flying fowl."
Then, the animals sat on their human's lap -- or next to them if they were bigger breeds like Yoko the Australian Shepherd, and a Rottweiler and Golden Retriever -- as Gentle spoke the blessing.
Coretta Palumbo held her year-old cross between a Pekinese and a poodle, Bentley, on her lap and thanked the little dog "for your companionship, for your love."
A few steps away, Chris Janson asked God to bless his 11-year-old mutt Teddy.
Mark Randolph stroked nine-year-old Logan, and asked that the Lord's face shine on him. Nearby, a man kissed his Golden Retriever.
According to the American Pet Products Association, some 46 million Americans own more than 78 million dogs between them, and U.S. pet owners are projected to spend more than $50 million on their pets this year.
For those who can't make it to Washington to have their dogs blessed, there are online sites where owners can request prayers and blessings for their dogs, cats, fish, reptiles, stick insects and other animal companions, and other churches also hold annual blessing ceremonies for pets.
The National City Christian church is toying with the idea of holding a blessing of the cats -- more difficult, said Gentle, because few people walk their cats.
If they do go through with the idea, they might do it on the birthday of a famous former parishioner, president James Garfield, who, by happy coincidence, shares his name with the popular cartoon cat.
Image: Elvert Barnes / via Flickr