Most dog owners would shudder to think of how their pooch would act in a roomful of frail strangers, each wanting to hug or pet the dog, and sometimes making sudden movements with a cane or wheelchair.
But nothing fazes a small set of well trained - and temperamentally relaxed - therapy dogs. They can be suddenly grabbed, pushed or pulled, and they never growl, bark or show hostility.
If no one is petting them at the moment, they might just walk over and lay down next to the chair of a perfect stranger, inviting contact, as Mary McDermott's dog Christie did at a recent visit to the adult day care center, Senior Care of Vineland.
McDermott, 53, of Mays Landing in Hamilton Township, volunteers with Christie about once a week through the nonprofit Leashes of Love, she said. The group's mission is to take pups to people in institutions, whose quality of life can be improved by interacting with them. Leashes of Love dogs are certified through the nonprofit Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, in Morris Plains, Morris County.
McDermott worked with Christie for several months to get ready for her certification test, which the 4-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog passed last month. She and Christie have gone into schools to help children relax during reading class. The kids read to the dogs, McDermott said. And she has visited adult day care and nursing homes.
"These dogs want to interact with people," said Diane Murowany, of Vineland, the South Jersey representative for Cherry Hill-based Leashes of Love. She recruits volunteers, helps them train their dogs, and is qualified to test dogs for certification. She is also the owner of All Critters Sitting Service, a pet sitting business that cares for animals in their homes.
Leashes of Love is one of about a dozen groups in the state training and placing therapy dogs in institutional visits. Most are active in northern and central parts of the state. Another local group is Jersey Shore Love On A Leash, based in South Toms River and serving Ocean County.
Vineland Senior Care client Dorothy Ann Cuccia, 48, of Vineland, was thrilled with the visit. The former educator suffers form degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, and is in a wheelchair. But she said the visit with the therapy dogs brightened her day, as she hugged them and asked their owners lots of questions.
"I love animals. I love them," she said as she hugged Murowany's 140-pound Great Dane, Cooper. Murowany allowed her to command him to speak, and reward him with treats when he did.
"I can't tell you how very much you made my day," Cuccia said as she gave him a goodbye kiss. "Thank you, Cooper."
Vineland Senior Care Activities Director Katie Smith said animal visits are therapeutic for clients. The center serves the disabled and people of all ages with medical needs, as well as senior citizens.
"Animals create a sense of caring and gentleness, increase self esteem and lower stress levels," Smith said. "Pets also encourage movement, motiviating seniors to keep mobile and stay active."
South Jersey Healthcare's Regional Medical Center at Vineland has a therapy Greyhound dog named Gypsy, who works with its owner, nurse Sami Abate, of Millville. Gypsy walks with heart patients, and was the subject of a reserach study at the hospital, published in January 2011.
Lead author Abate found heart patients who were given the opportunity to walk with Gypsy were nearly four times less likely to refuse to walk; they walked more than twice as many steps as those who walked without her; and went home after an average of six rather than seven days.
Murowany has five dogs living with her currently, three of her own and two she fosters for Bald is Beautiful, which rescues and fosters the hairless Chinese Crested Dog. She is also a vice president for the Animal Friends Foundation, based in Vineland.
Training for therapy dogs can begin at about six months, she said, but the dog can't be certified until it's at least year old. "Then you can tell what the temperament is going to be," Murowany said. What makes a good therapy dog is 30 percent training and 70 percent temperament, she said, adding the training component only has to encompass basic obedience.
It also helps to entertain audiences if the dog knows a trick or two. At Senior Care of Vineland, Christie waved and spoke on cue. Murowany's therapy dog Cooper, a 140-pound Great Dane, spoke on cue and played dead after Murowany "shot" him with a pointed finger.
Cooper was saved from near death as a 10-month-old puppy. He had been abandonned in a crate left in an apartment in Burlington County, Murowany said.
By the time neighbors heard him and got him out, he was so hungry he'd eaten a towel that was in the crate. But the owner of the apartment complex stepped up and paid a $5,000 vet bill for his surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital, saving his life, she said.
Murowany was asked to foster Cooper during his recuperation, but after two days she and her husband both agreed they wanted to adopt him. Now the pony-like Cooper has since become a star therapy dog. Cooper even has his own Facebook page (Cooper the BIG therapy dog) where the folks who saved him, and all of his other fans, can follow his exploits.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:
Diane Murowany is looking for a volunteer coordinator for the Jersey Shore area, who is willing to get his/her own dog certified, and expand the program through recruiting and training volunteer handlers and their dogs at the shore. For information on that position, or becoming a volunteer and getting a dog certified, call Murowany at 856-313-2172.
Jersey Shore Love On A Leash contact is Kathy Costaney at KtCost@aol.com