“Max is here!” someone calls out in a rehab therapy room or a hospital breakroom, an assisted living dining room or whispered in a library. The name doesn’t matter. It could be Chesley, Jack, Clara May or Leo. The important message is:
There is a dog in the house!
A therapy dog and, on the Eastern Shore, it’s probably a member of Pets on Wheels of Delmarva (POW), a non-profit group organization founded in 1993. The volunteer teams are made up of the specially trained pets and owners visit nursing homes, assisted living and rehab facilities, schools and libraries to provide comfort, companionship and support in a unique way. All the dogs want in return is to give and receive love – and maybe a tummy rub.
Do these visits work? Yes – for patients, residents, staff and children. It’s amazing to see a serious doctor get down on the floor with a dog for a few minutes and to see the stress drain away. “There was an elderly gentleman, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, living in a special unit,” says Bev Horner, Wicomico County Coordinator for the organization. “He was having a rough day, ignoring the aides, ignoring the world. Then Toby, a Golden Retriever, and I walked in. The patient perked up and said, ‘Oh, there’s my friend!’ followed by lots of pats and licks and tummy rubs. He reconnected with reality by interacting with this very special dog.”
Forgive the pun, but therapy dogs are a special breed. They love their job and do it with tireless enthusiasm. They draw people, the ones who need their attention, like a magnet. “Whenever Leo and I visit a hospital, I have to plan to arrive at least 20 minutes early because so many people, especially staff, want to pet and play with him in the corridors,” reports Susan Reiss, local author of the St. Michaels Silver Mystery series.
Not all the visits are made at medical facilities. College students need attention, too. “We like to visit Washington College,” says Barbara Ellis, Vice President of POW of Delmarva. “A team will hang out in a common area and there are three kinds of reactions: a student will walk by and smile or pause to give a pat on the head or get down on the floor with the dog and play for 20 minutes. They get whatever they need to relieve stress, especially the underclass students.”
The dogs also perform their magic at schools and libraries to help kids perfect their reading skills. They are a patient audience when a child needs to read aloud. A new reader is told to sound out a new word, but sometimes, there isn’t time in a reading group. Reading to a dog, there is all the time needed and there’s no stress or judgment. The payoff is often a madly wagging tail and a nuzzle and more confident child.
“Reading to the Dogs program is an asset to the library. The dogs are non-judgmental and reading to them helps children build confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes children are anxious or apprehensive when reading in front of others, however, the dogs do not make a judgement so the children are calm and can enjoy the reading experience. The dogs listen quietly to anything,” explains Shauna Beulah, Manager, St. Michaels Branch, Talbot County Free Library.
To be fair, there is one therapy animal in POW of Delmarva that stands above the rest, literally. It is Stormy, a miniature horse, who loves the carrots he gets during visits. He travels in the back of his owner’s minivan.
It takes patience, training and testing for a team to become part of POW of Delmarva. First, a vet must certify good health. Then there is temperament testing. Many dogs are uncomfortable around wheelchairs. They may shy away from patients or strange smells in a care facility. They might react badly to being hugged. All of these reactions and more are considered by the people who do the certifications. And each dog is covered by an insurance policy, just in case.
There is always room for more teams. In this time of COVID-19, stress is high. The teams are not visiting right now, but it is an opportunity to contact the organization and do the training. When the crisis is over, teams will go back to work and the need will be great. POW of Delmarva is an all-volunteer organization that depends on contributions to pay all its costs. There are no dues.
To stay in contact and spread the love, Ruth Renkenberger put together videos featuring the dogs that lighten hearts both young and old. They are on Facebook for all to see @Pets on Wheels of Delmarva. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.PetsOnWheelsOfDelmarvaInc.org.
Zoe was so popular at Pemberton Elementary School in Salisbury that she was included in the yearbook.