From Wellesley Townsman,

Is there a dachshund in the house?
By Rachel Lebeaux/ Townsman Staff
Thursday, October 7, 2004

"Now watch what I'm going to do here," says Peter Hobson as he crouches down to the level of his 7-year-old pug dog, Joseph. He places a small dog treat next to each of Joseph's paws, stands up and announces, "I want Joseph to eat ... the one on the right." After a moment's hesitation, the small dog gulps down the treat sitting next to his right paw, followed by the one of the left. Around him, 20 women, all residents of the Elizabeth Seton Residence or the Marillac Residence on Oakland Street in Wellesley Hills, grin and clap, awaiting the chance to pet Joseph themselves.

Joseph is one of 101 dogs in Caring Canines, a Winchester-based volunteer pet therapy program that arranges 35-40 pet visits per month at nursing homes, hospitals, adult day-care programs and assisted-living facilities. The group visits facilities in more than two dozen MetroWest communities, and the goal of these visits, says Caring Canines founder Marilyn Gilbert, is to give people the opportunity to interact with pets when they might not otherwise have the opportunity to do so.

On Tuesday, Oct. 5, five dogs, their owners in tow, make the trip to the Elizabeth Seton Residence, a nursing home on Oakland Street run by the Sisters of Charity. But before entering the facility, the dogs meet in the parking lot for what Gilbert describes as a "sniff and meet."

"It gives the dogs a chance to check each other out and feel comfortable working as a pack," she said. "This way, when we get inside, they're interested in [the residents], not each other."

Gilbert explains that Caring Canines has an extensive "screening process" for therapy dogs. Dogs must be a year old, healthy, obedient and willing to work with other dogs. Owners who wish to volunteer their pets must first attend a facility visit in order to familiarize themselves with the program and get a sense of how their dogs would fare under such conditions. The dog will then be subject to an evaluation which, Gilbert says, requires the tester "to be a little rude or clumsy with the dog." This includes touching the dogs' faces, coughing on them, muzzling them and giving them an unexpected poke or an exuberant hug - all things that the residents they visit, who may be blind, mentally challenged or not completely in control of their movements, could inadvertently do.

Following the "meet and sniff," the dogs and their owners move inside and are greeted by residents of Elizabeth Seton and Marillac, an assisted-living residence for retired sisters located next door. The women's chairs and wheelchairs are arranged in a circle, creating something of an arena for the canines. After a brief introduction, the owners take turns walking their dogs into the circle and proceed to acquaint them with the residents.

Merry Perry of Quincy already has one dog, Blazer, in Caring Canines, but this afternoon, she is debuting Blazer's brother Miro, a 6-year-old black Labrador/springer mix. He demonstrates his "slam dunk" trick by standing on his hind legs and placing his paws in Perry's hands. "He's a real people-lover. He's going to have fun here," she said.

Next up is Bella, a 2-year-old English golden retriever whose obeys the commands of her owner, Mary Ann Engel of West Newton, to sit, shake paws and not eat her treats until she is instructed to do so.

Tyler, a 1 1/2-year old Shih-Tzu, has made nearly 50 visits since his owner, Sandra Drought of Newton, signed him up following his first birthday. "I got a Shih-Tzu because they have nice dispositions, and I really wanted a therapy dog," Drought said. "He's very well behaved and loves people."

A 6-year-old golden retriever named Tucker is next, and his owner, Kathy McMullin of Wellesley, says in an apologetic voice that he doesn't do any tricks. But he is friendly and agreeable and she says he is perfect for this program because "he's a teddy bear."

Last is Joseph, the pug who knows his right from his left. His owner, Hobson, lives in Medford, and says that Joseph has made about 25 visits.

After introductions, the owners are free to escort their canines around the circle and give residents the chance to interact with them. Each owner walks his or her leashed dog over to a group of residents who are free to reach out and pet the canines. Some of the smaller dogs, like Joseph the pug, can sit on the residents' laps. Some owners pass out their dog's "business cards," which include a photo of the pup and a summary of his or her favorite activities, foods and toys.

Sister Maurita McMahon, a resident at Marillac, quickly grows attached to Bella and strokes the golden retriever's head. When Bella's owner tries to uproot her, Bella doesn't move.

"You don't want to go, do you?" laughed Sister Maurita, still stroking the canine's light-colored fur. "But you have to, or everybody will get mad at me!"

Meanwhile, Sister Dorothy Mintern, a resident at Elizabeth Seton, is enamored with Tucker. Stroking his reddish-brown fur, she murmurs that the dog is precious, well-behaved and has beautiful, soft ears. "I used to have a Boston terrier," she said. Having Caring Canines visit once a month "is the greatest."

Susan Inglis, social services director at Elizabeth Seton Residence, agrees. "When I take people on tour, I frequently tell them that dogs and children are the most popular visitors here," she said. "A lot of [the residents] had pets, and had to give up their homes and their pets at the same time ... it's hard! This is a great program for them."

Adds activities director Connie Sewall, "Even the people who stay in their rooms come down for the pets. They love patting them."

After about 40 minutes, the owners gather their dogs and prepare to leave as residents head back up to their rooms. As she packs up Tyler's bag, Drought reflects, "I travel a lot [for work] and people ask, 'How do you have time [for Caring Canines]?' And I think, 'How can you not have time?' We make such a difference in people's lives - it's incredible."

As she heads back up to her room Sister Evelyn Bailey, an Elizabeth Seton resident, notes that she used to own German shepherds and that there was always one in the yard. Smiling, she sums up the magic of these Caring Canines' visits: "These are the dogs that win the ladies' hearts."

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